It can be too easy, especially when we're younger, to take our teeth for granted. After all, teeth are supposed to last a lifetime, right? Unfortunately, many people discover, often too late, that tooth and gum problems have gotten out of control and that they're faced with the real possibility of losing their teeth.
How can this be avoided? The answer is simpler than you think: brushing, flossing and regular dental checkups, according to Drs. Robert and Mandy Shearer.
Dental technology continues to advance and create new ways to keep teeth healthy and to help patients recover from dental problems. But it's still the basics - brushing, flossing and regular checkups - that make the most difference. And they're the least expensive.
There are even studies that show flossing can add as much as 6.4 years to a person's life. Research at Emory University suggests that flossing helps keep the immune system younger. The bacteria that cause gum disease trigger an inflammation response that can cause arteries to swell, triggering cardiovascular disease.
Drs. Mandy and Robert Shearer have a few simple recommendations to keep teeth strong and healthy from childhood to old age.
Start children early. Early childhood caries (cavities) are the No. 1 chronic disease affecting young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have their first dental visit by age 1.
Seal off trouble. Permanent molars come in around age 6. Thin protective coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth can prevent cavities in the pits and fissures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sealants can significantly reduce cavities.
Use fluoride. The single biggest advance in oral health has been fluoride, which strengthens enamel, making it harder for cavities to form. Three out of four Americans drink water that is fluoridated, but as Americans rely less on tap water, lack of fluoride could be a concern. If you aren't sure if you are getting enough fluoride, ask your dentist for ways to add fluoride to your regime, such as certain toothpastes and mouthwashes.
Brush twice a day and floss daily. "This tip may sound simple, but most people do not brush the recommended two minutes twice a day and only floss occasionally," said Dr. Mandy Shearer. "There are several over-the-counter products, like electric toothbrushes with timers and floss holders, that make it easier to take proper care of your teeth."
Chew sugar-free gum. In addition to brushing and flossing, chewing sugar-free gum after a meal can increase saliva flow, which naturally washes bacteria away and neutralizes acid built up after eating.
Use sports guards. Sports and recreational activities build healthy bodies, but they can pose a threat to teeth, which is where mouthguards come in. Mouthguards help cushion a blow to the face, minimizing the risk of broken teeth and injuries to your lips, tongue, face or jaw.
Don't smoke or use smokeless tobacco. Tobacco stains teeth and significantly increases the risk of gum disease and oral cancer. If you smoke or use chewing tobacco, consider quitting. "Be a positive role model," encouraged Dr. Robert Shearer. "Children imitate adults, especially their parents. Be sure to counsel your kids not to start."
Eat smart. At every age, a healthy diet is essential to healthy teeth and gums. A well-balanced diet of whole foods - including grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables and dairy products - will provide all the nutrients needed.
Avoid sugary foods. When bacteria in the mouth break down simple sugars, they produce high acid levels in the mouth that can erode tooth enamel, opening the door to cavities. "Sugary drinks, including soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks, are often sipped on throughout the day, which raises acid levels in saliva, allowing cavities to form," Dr. Mandy Shearer explained. "Carbonated drinks tend to make it worse because carbonation also increases acidity, and sticky candies are another culprit, because they linger on teeth surfaces."
Make an appointment. Most experts recommend a dental checkup every six months - more often if you have problems like gum disease. During a routine exam, a dentist or dental hygienist removes plaque buildup that you can't brush or floss away and looks for signs of decay. A regular dental exam also spots:
• Early signs of oral cancer
• Wear and tear from tooth grinding
• Signs of gum disease
• Dry mouth "Almost all tooth decay and most gum disease can be prevented with good oral hygiene," said Dr. Robert Shearer. "We're talking about taking a few minutes each day to brush and floss. That's not a lot in return for a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums."