It was a photograph snapped in 2003 that convinced New Orleans resident Molly Vigour it was time to take action to improve her smile.

“My husband was in the Coast Guard and we went to a ball. I later saw a picture of us, and that sealed the deal,” she said. “I wanted to get it addressed.”

Vigour, 28 at the time, had an open bite, a condition in which the front teeth are forced outward so much that the upper and lower teeth don’t touch each other, even when the mouth is closed.

The misalignment made it hard to eat — even chomping down on a sandwich could be taxing — and made her self-conscious about her appearance.

She decided to get braces, and three years later, she was flashing her pearly whites without regret.

“The results were a great self-esteem boost,” she said.

While braces used to be almost exclusively an onerous rite of adolescence, improved technology, more affordable treatment and the fact that a stellar smile is now regarded as essential to professional and social success have led legions of adults in New Orleans and across the country to get orthodontic treatment later in life.

According to data provided by the 17,000-member American Association of Orthodontists — which is holding its 114th annual conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center through Tuesday — about 20 percent of orthodontic patients in 2012 were older than 18. About 1.2 million adults were treated that year, a record high and a 40 percent increase from 20 years ago.

“I think there’s an uptick for most of our members,” said Bob Varner, an Oregon orthodontist and president-elect of the organization. “We’re coming into a generation when doing healthy things is more important than it was before.”

Varner said his group has created a number of outreach endeavors to increase awareness of orthodontic treatment for adults, including its Adult Hall of Fame website. The site is composed of video testimonials from adults with braces and high-profile careers, such as airline pilots and opera singers.

Carol Stuckey, an orthodontist with offices in Slidell and Metairie, said many of the adults who come to her for treatment are preparing for a big life event.

“It’s often a daughter getting married or a son getting married,” she said. “They want to look their best.”

Stuckey, who has been practicing for 32 years, said one influential factor in more adults’ decision to get orthodontic treatment is new forms of braces that are less conspicuous than traditional options.

One of these products is Invisalign, a clear set of custom-made aligners that don’t have any of the metal brackets or wires of standard braces. Also popular with adult patients are clear ceramic braces and lingual bracelets, which have their brackets hidden on the inside of teeth.

“People really like the aesthetics of these options better,” she said.

According to Stuckey, the majority of adults getting braces are still female, but increasing numbers of men are opting to correct their smiles later in life.

Their motivations vary, but a 2012 study by Wakefield Research for the orthodontists association reported that more than one-third of American adults are unhappy with their smile and many of them believe that with better teeth they could have a better social life, a better love life or a better job.

Celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Faith Hill have even tuned up their already gleaming grins by getting braces in their 30s and 40s.

One of Stuckey’s patients, a 40-year-old man who asked that his name not be used, said he felt his new smile was a boon to his work in a sales and marketing position.

“If the only option was metal braces, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” said the man, who opted for Invisalign treatment. “With this, it was a no-brainer.”

Some older patients are getting braces primarily for health reasons.

Jamie Manders, a 68-year-old dentist, decided to get braces when gaps in her lower teeth started causing her problems. “I was getting chicken caught between them,” she said.

Stuckey fitted Manders with Invisalign, and six months later her treatment was done. Now, Manders often recommends braces for her patients with crooked teeth.

“I often look at people’s mouths and wonder how they eat,” she said.

Both Varner and Stuckey cited low-interest payment plans, flexible spending accounts and dental insurance benefits as additional reasons for the uptick in adult patients.

There also is the ubiquity of smartphones, which allow photos to be spread easily across social media and make it hard to avoid running into the occasionally unflattering image of oneself.

“You pretty much can’t go anyplace anymore without getting your picture taken,” Varner said.

He added that regardless of a patient’s age or motivation for getting orthodontic treatment, there’s one moment he always savors.

“It’s the day that you take the braces off,” Varner said. “When you clean their teeth and then polish them, that’s the most rewarding part of what you do in orthodontics.”