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How Attached Are You To Your Teeth?
Gum Disease is the Leading Cause of Tooth Loss in Adults, And Most Hardly Know it Exists

March 16th, 2004

Sure - you brush every day, and maybe you floss on the weekends - but if you’re not aware of gum disease, window shopping for dentures might be in your not too distant future. It’s estimated that 80% of American adults have some form of the oral infection, but polls show that only 60% of Americans know even a little about the causes, symptoms and long-term risks of the easily preventable condition.

Brush twice a day

Gum disease (otherwise known as periodontal disease - periodontal meaning "around the tooth") refers, in a general sense, to any bacterial growth that breaks down the tissues and bone that support the teeth. The progression of infections moves through two phases - gingivitis and periodontitis.

The mouth is like a hub for bacteria, with millions of the organisms coming in through food, water and air and staying to grow in the warm, wet environment. Many are harmless, but some can have damaging effect on teeth and gums. Harmful bacteria constantly combine with mucous and other particles in the mouth to form a substance known as plaque, which settles on teeth. Relatively soft, most plaque is scraped away by the bristles of a toothbrush. However, plaque that brushing doesn’t catch can harden into tartar (which can only be removed at a dentist’s office).

When the bacteria in the tartar reaches the gums, they inflammation they cause - the first, mild form of gum disease, gingivitis - causes the gum tissue to become raw, swollen and prone to bleeding. While possibly disconcerting, gingivitis in and of itself isn’t that threatening; the teeth are still firmly planted in the bone beneath the gums and sufferers feel little discomfort. Gingivitis can be reversed by regular brushing, flossing and professional dental care.

The real risk is that a case of gingivitis could progress into periodontitis. At this stage, bacteria spreads into pockets below the gum line. Toxins produced by the bacteria cause the body to respond in a way that breaks down the bone and tissue that hold the teeth in place. Loosened, the gums begin to separate from the teeth, pulling teeth apart from one another and causing spaces to open up in the gum tissue, which subsequently become infected and speed the course of the disease. Symptoms can include constant bad breath, sensitive teeth and gums and pain during chewing and Several options - including medication, deep cleaning dental techniques and oral surgery - are available to help slow or reverse the degeneration. However, if untreated, the bone and tissue will continue to degrade and teeth will loosen, eventually falling out.

More systematic consequences of gum disease might also be possible. While the evidence is far from conclusive, recent studies have shown possible links between periodontal disease and serious health conditions. Researchers are presently studying its impact on the risk of diabetes complications, heart attack and pregnancy difficulties.

To make sure you have teeth as long as you want to, consider the following tips and precautions:
  • Brush twice a day (preferably with a fluoride toothpaste) and floss once a day. Both help to keep plaque from forming.
  • Give up tobacco. If you needed another reason to quit smoking or using chew, tobacco use is the most significant risk factor associated with developing gum disease, and can lessen the effectiveness of some treatments.
  • Keep aware of the medications you’re on. Saliva has a protective effect on gums and teeth, and some drugs can decrease the amount of saliva in the mouth.
  • Stick to a healthy diet. It can be more difficult for the body to fight off infections of any kind, including infections in the gums, if it doesn’t have the proper nutrients. In addition, diets rich in sugar increase the acidity of the mouth, and the bacteria that causes gum disease grows best in acidic environments.
  • If you’re diabetic, be sure to effectively manage your condition. Diabetics are at a higher risk of developing gum disease than non-diabetics.
  • See your dentist twice a year.

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