By: Victoria Clayton
Do you know all there is to know about maintaining a healthy smile? See if you can separate oral health facts and fiction.
Myth. “More important than the actual amount of sugar you consume is the frequency,” says Dr. Rob Berg, chairman of applied dentistry at the University of Colorado, in Denver. Here’s why: Nasty bacteria, called streptococcus mutans, that live in your mouth are primarily responsible for tooth decay. Every time you eat, they feed on the sugar in food and drinks and produce enamel-destroying acid waste. So “if you’re habitually bathing your teeth in sugar throughout the day and night, it’s a never-ending process,” says Berg.
What to do: Limit eating sweets to mealtimes, when your streptococcus mutans is revved up anyhow. If not at mealtime, finish your drink or sweet snack within a half hour, advises Berg.
Truth. Wouldn’t it be nice if one of the rewards for getting older was that our teeth somehow became impenetrable? Not so, unfortunately. Dry mouth -- a common ailment caused by medications, diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis -- makes many adults highly susceptible to tooth decay. “We want saliva. It’s wonderful because it buffers harmful acid in the mouth,” says Dr. Boyd Robinson, associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Florida College of Dentistry in Gainesville.
What to do: Talk to your doctor and dentist about switching medications or using special rinses and pastes formulated to help moisten the mouth. Drinking water throughout the day and chewing sugarless gum are also great mouth moisteners. (For more tips on dry mouth relief, see our recent feature here.)
Truth. Once a tooth has been damaged, there’s a lot that can be done to fortify it, but the integrity of the tooth will never be the same. A damaged tooth is more susceptible to cracks and chips; plus cavities could still occur, as bacteria like to latch on at the margins where a filling or crown meets the tooth.
What to do: You guessed it: Brushing twice a day and flossing daily is your best defense against future tooth decay anywhere in your mouth.
Myth. The number is actually higher: Women with osteoporosis, or low bone density, are three times as likely as their peers to lose a tooth. After all, teeth are anchored into the jaw, which is a bone. Therefore, anything that affects your bones can also affect your teeth.
What to do: Eating plenty of calcium-rich foods such as dairy products and tofu may help keep your jaw and other bones healthy. Engaging in weight-bearing exercise such as walking, dancing and jogging also seems to help. If you’re 50 years or older, or have a family history of osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about getting your bone density tested. Osteoporosis medications may help prevent damage to your bones and teeth.
Myth. We may be obsessed with gleaming white teeth, but often, color tells you nothing about the true health of your choppers, says Robinson. For example, teeth can be bleached very white, but the bone supporting them could be in dire shape. Also, as you age, your teeth naturally become more yellow because more dentin, which lies beneath enamel, is exposed. “This is a normal process,” says Robinson.
What to do: Pay attention to bleeding gums or pain when you chew -- these tell-tale signs could mean that your mouth really is in trouble.
Victoria Clayton is a freelance health writer and the former “Growing Up Healthy” columnist for Msnbc.com. She has written about oral health topics for The Los Angeles Times, and she is a frequent contributor to Oral Care and Health Daily.
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