Oral Health, the Gateway to Well-Being

The gateway to well-being is oral health.

Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of childhood, but many older adults suffer from this epidemic too. Recent statistics reflect that 53 million adults and children currently have untreated tooth decay in their permanent teeth.  Additionally, 25% of U.S. adults aged 65 and older have lost all of their teeth.

Other interesting facts include that African American and Hispanic adults have twice the amount of untreated tooth decay as Caucasians. And more than 7,600 people (mostly older Americans) die from oral and pharyngeal cancers each year with 35,000 new cases diagnosed annually. Oral/pharyngeal cancers have a 50% five year survival rate.

What does that all mean? Gingivitis, bad breath, gum disease, dental caries, infections, tooth loss, bone loss and even cancer. But the good news is: Most oral diseases are preventable!

How does it all start?  When we eat, bacteria binds with food particles and sugars to form the sticky substance plaque.  If plaque is not removed (from daily brushing and flossing), it becomes hardened and forms tartar, which can only be removed by a dentist.  Tartar and plaque compromise teeth and gum tissue. Teeth start to become loose, gums begin to recede, halitosis (bad breath) ensues, evidence of dysgeusia (altered taste) appears, and chewing becomes difficult. Eventually, affected teeth may have to be extracted (pulled).

Tooth decay, also called cavities or caries, is common in all ages. Essentially, these are holes or erosion of tooth surfaces. Gingivitis is the inflammation of the gums and is a precursor to gum disease.  Symptoms include: bleeding gums, swollen and/or bright red or purple gums, mouth sores, and/or shiny appearance to the gums. This commonality is easily treated with a diligent oral health plan.

However, if left untreated, periodontal (gum) disease develops. This is an infection caused by bacteria (although it’s really caused by lack of oral hygiene) that gets under the gum-line and destroys the gums and underlying bone.

Periodontal disease is two to three times more prevalent in people with diabetes. (It also progresses faster and is more severe.) Inflamed gum tissue is highly vascular and makes glycemic (blood sugar) control more difficult.

Currently, 4 – 12% of American adults have gum disease. And three times as many smokers have gum disease as people who have never smoked.

What contributes to these oral diseases?  The number one risk factor is poor oral hygiene, followed by: Poor diet (high in sugars and carbohydrates), smoking, xerostomia (dry mouth, which can be caused by medications), diabetes, strokes, stress, hormone changes, excessive use of alcohol, being African American or Hispanic, no fluoridation in the water, and limited or no access to dental services.

In 2009, an estimated $102 billion was spent on dental services in the United States and Americans make about 500 million dental visits annually.

It does not have to be this way! With these few recommendations MOST oral disease can be prevented.

  • Drink fluoridated water
  • Brush and floss teeth at least twice daily
  • Schedule regular dental checkups (two recommended annually)
  • Use sealants for children
  • Eat a diet that is rich in calcium and vitamin D
  • Eat a diet that avoids sugar and encourages fruits and vegetables
  • Chew sugarless gum
  • Quit smoking
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Manage xerostomia (dry mouth).

Treatment options vary considerably for aesthetic and functional issues and have come a long way over the years to improve not only the cosmetic appearance of your teeth, but the longevity of preserving your smile. Treatments for oral diseases include: professional cleanings, fillings, crowns, bridges, partials, dentures, tooth implants, gum surgery, tooth extraction and teeth whitening. Additionally, medical conditions must be managed to maintain maximum oral health.