Straight talk about oral health

Straight talk about oral health

Harvard Health Letter

If you want a snapshot of your current and future health, then open wide. “The condition of your teeth and gums can often show warning signs of serious issues, from potential tooth loss to possible cardiovascular disease and cancer,” says Lisa Simon, D.M.D., instructor in oral health policy and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

Tooth decay and gum disease

The main issue with oral health is tooth decay, which strikes 90 percent of all adults, and gum disease, which affects approximately 40 percent of those ages 65 or older, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Gum disease — infection of the gums and surrounding tissues — develops when plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, builds up along and under the gum line.

There are two forms of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis. With gingivitis, the gums become red and swollen, and are prone to bleeding. These are signs of inflammation from plaque and tartar deposited below the gum line.

Left untreated, gingivitis can turn into periodontitis. This condition is more severe: it damages the soft tissues and bone that support your teeth and may lead to infection and tooth loss.

Gum disease is a problem in itself, but people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. The thinking is that low levels of inflammation from gingivitis may contribute to blood vessel problems.

See your dentist

The No. 1 move men can make to protect and improve their oral health — and their future health — is to have a dental exam every six months. Besides cleaning your teeth and taking X-rays, your dental professional will do an oral cancer screening by looking at your throat, palate, cheeks, gums, and tongue (on top and underneath) for any signs of cancer.

“Even if older men do not have teeth, they should still visit a dentist regularly,” says Simon. “The dentist can ensure that their dentures still fit comfortably, and that there is no infection or disease of the tissues underneath the dentures.”

Still, older men are less likely to schedule regular visits, says Simon. One possible reason is that sometimes men do not connect their oral health with their overall well-being, so it is not seen as something that requires regular attention.

“Yet all older adults should have recurring dental exams to identify, diagnose, and treat potential problems before they become severe,” she says. “Men should talk to their dentist about setting up reminders to make sure they keep regular appointments.”

Practice good oral hygiene

Besides regular dental visits, you can protect against gum disease by practicing better oral hygiene.

Curbing certain lifestyle habits, such as drinking alcohol and using tobacco products, can lower your risk of gum disease and oral cancer. And even though you have been brushing your teeth since you were small, you still may not be thorough. Here are some tips:

Brush at least twice a day with toothpaste containing fluoride. “A manual toothbrush is fine, but some people feel it is easier to use an electric toothbrush, since you will not need to use your wrist and arms to move the brush,” says Simon.

Brush for at least two minutes. Divide your mouth into four sections, and spend 30 seconds on each.

Replace your toothbrush every three months or as soon as the bristles begin to fray, whichever comes first.

Floss at least once a day to remove plaque and trapped food that can increase bacteria buildup.

If you have been diagnosed with gum disease, your dentist may prescribe a mouthwash with antibiotics in it. Otherwise, regular mouthwash is not as effective as brushing and flossing to keep your mouth clean.

Do not sleep in your dentures or partial — it increases your risk of an oral infection and even pneumonia, says a March 2015 study in the Journal of Dental Research. Brush them with a toothbrush in the morning and at night, and soak overnight with a cleanser.

Your choice of floss or cleaning device can make flossing easier. Here are some popular choices, but your dentist can advise which ones are right for you.

–Waxed/unwaxed floss. Waxed floss is coated with a light layer of wax that makes it more resistant to breaking, but harder to use in tight spaces. Unwaxed floss is better for closely spaced teeth.

–Dental tape (waxed or unwaxed). Broader and flatter than traditional floss, dental tape is more effective for cleaning between teeth that are loosely spaced.

–Super floss. This yarn-like floss has stiffer portions on either end that can be guided through dental work, such as implants or bridges.

–Floss holder. This Y-shaped plastic tool holds a length of floss between two prongs, which is ideal for people who have trouble fitting their fingers into their mouths.

–Interproximal brushes and swabs. These small spiral brushes or swabs clean gaps between widely separated teeth or around prosthetic devices.

–End-tufted brushes. These have a plastic handle with toothbrush-type bristles and are useful for hard-to-reach areas, such as the margins of crowns and the insides of the lower back teeth.

–Irrigation devices. These motorized units, which send a pulsating stream of water or mouth rinse through a detachable nozzle, are good for flushing out debris from bridges and other restorations. –Harvard Men’s Health Watch