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Don't forget teeth when thinking health

MoMouth can show dentists other health problems

September 05, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Dr. Alfred Smith says maintaining proper oral health comes down to doing the basics - brushing and flossing.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer,

Carole DiVentura has been blessed with beautiful teeth.

Lousy eyes, bad knees and thinning hair, she joked. But great pearly whites.

That's why the 70-year-old Hagerstown woman was recently surprised when her dentist pointed out some changes in her gums.

The tissue was moving away from her teeth, which explained why she had become more sensitive to hot and cold foods.

The problem isn't unusual among the older population, DiVentura was told. Aging gums naturally recede over time.

Just as the body ages, so does the mouth.

Gum disease, stained teeth, lack of saliva are just a few changes people experience as they age.

But while it's nothing to smile about, there are many things a person can do to keep their mouth looking and feeling younger than its years.

Smile

Teeth are amazingly strong. Yet they're not indestructible. That's why a lifetime of crunching and grinding can cause teeth to wear down, said Dr. Alfred Smith of Allegany Dental Care in Hagerstown.

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The process eventually can affect the joints, including the tempo mandibular joint -- TMJ -- the jaw joint in front of the ear.

Sometimes people wear their teeth down to the pulp of the tooth, he said, which results in having a root canal.

Another cause for concern is tooth loss, Smith said. The leading culprits are cavities and gum disease.

Just because you've grown a few gray hairs doesn't mean you're out of the woods when it comes to cavities.

Decay around the root of the tooth and along the gum line are common among seniors, Smith said. That's why it's important to clean and floss.

Bleeding gums, a sign of periodontal (gum) disease, can occur at any age but is a leading cause of tooth loss among seniors and shouldn't be taken lightly, Smith said.

"If you're fingernails began to bleed when you washed your hands, you would be concerned," he said. "Why wouldn't you be concerned if your gums bleed while brushing your teeth?"

According to the American Dental Association, the well-being of the aging mouth is tied to the health of the rest of your body. There's evidence of an association between gum inflammation and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and respiratory problems - all of which are more prevalent in later life.

Scientists believe that bacteria from gum infections travel through the bloodstream to trigger inflammation in organs and tissues at distance sites.

"That's why regular checkups with a dentist are important," Smith said.

When it comes to how often you should schedule those appointments, "it's no one-size-fits-all," he said. "Some people don't have problems that other people are experiencing. Still, you need to be evaluated on an annual basis."

Open wide

In addition to examining a patient's teeth, Smith said dentists check the entire mouth for other potential health problems, including cancer.

"Many people have no pain that signals there's a problem," he said. "But people who use tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, are at a higher risk for oral cancer. There's also an increase in HPV (human papilloma virus)."

Researchers now urge both doctors and dentists to be alert to overall health problems when taking care of older patients and encourage behaviors that will promote a healthy body from head to toe.

Frailty and various disorders also can affect why some individuals let their oral health slide, according to the National Council on Aging. Arthritis can make tooth brushing painful or a lack of strength can prevent being able to stand at the bathroom sink very long, which can lead to a quick decline in dental health.

As people age, another issue they face is a reduced flow of saliva, sometimes a side effect of medical conditions, medications or treatment, Smith said.

"When you're younger, natural saliva lubricates and washes the mouth. There is less saliva as we age and left untreated, dry mouth can lead to tooth decay," he said.

Not all trips to the dentist are for disease prevention. Many people go for cosmetic reasons.

One of the biggest concerns with aging teeth is discoloration, Smith said. And more and more people are looking to regain that sparkling smile.

"I think there is a generation of people entering their 60s who are more vain than generations of the past," he said. "They want to look youthful and one way is to whiten their smile."

While there are many whitening products on the market, Smith said not all products will work miracles. Many whiteners, for instance, will not bleach crowns, caps or fillings.

According to the American Dental Association, care should also be taken if a user has any history of teeth sensitivity. The product can get on the gum line and affect root surfaces.

"That's why you should see a dentist to learn what is suitable for you," Smith said.

Brush and floss

When all is said and done, the best way to maintain a healthy mouth is to brush and floss, Smith said.

The ADA recommends brushing after every meal, not just in the morning and at night. If a patient is at risk of periodontal disease, a dentist can often prescribe a special toothpaste or gel to help combat the problem, as well as a daily treatment of antibacterial rinse.

The dental organization also encourages older adults to make regular visits to their dentists to have their teeth cleaned or to have their dentures refit. Missing teeth or dentures that don't fit well can lead to potentially serious dental problems. Ill-fitting dentures can be a culprit in poor nutrition among seniors, causing people to limit the kinds of food they eat.

Decades ago, the ADA says, 50 percent of all seniors over the age of 65 had no natural teeth remaining. That number has now dropped to 27 percent.

Regardless of age, good dental habits can affect a person's confidence and self-image, the dental organization said. But, more importantly, it will pay off in your overall health.

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