What healthy teeth? This month the American Dental Association gave U.S. residents a "D" in oral-care knowledge, based on a survey of 1,500 adults. To get tips on how to keep your mouth more smile-worthy, FamilyGoesStrong.com talked with Ada S. Cooper, a dentist in private practice in New York City and an American Dental Association consumer adviser. Excerpts:
What's your advice on dental care for midlifers?
To not think it's too late to have a healthy mouth! There may be things that are residual from the fact you have cavities from the past, you may have crowns and other restorations that are the result of having had cavities. There's no reason your existing teeth, no matter what age, can't be healthy. I have a lot of patients who come in and say, "I'm 60 years old. Maybe I should just pull them." That's not necessary today.
So try to avoid dentures, even if they seem easy?
Natural tooth structure is always better than dentures. There's nothing that functions better than a healthy tooth, that looks better than a healthy tooth. [And] the roots of your teeth help to prevent your jawbones from resorbing, from getting smaller.
Why would they get smaller?
It's from lack of use. If you don't exercise your muscles, your muscles can atrophy. If you don't exercise your jaw by chewing with healthy teeth, your bone mass can become smaller. In this day and age, people really should not be thinking in terms of dentures as the first resort.
What should parents tell their teens and young-adult kids about piercing their lips and tongues?
Tongue piercing and lip piercing is ill-advised because you could chip your teeth, and many other problems can develop as a result.
Depending on how the piercing is done, infection can develop. I've seen patients who have chipped their front teeth from tongue piercings. There are lots of nerves running through your tongue. Those nerve endings can be damaged. Generally if you have a tongue pierce, because your tongue is so integral to your speech pattern, it's possible that even having the pierce itself will affect the way you speak. Think about how many times your tongue hits the roof of your mouth, to make the "th" sound. Your tongue goes right up against your teeth. Imagine a hard piece of metal doing all that instead of your soft tongue.
What should parents say to their teens?
My advice to parents of teenagers with respect to tongue piercings, lip piercings and overall oral care is to make them want to be self-directed and self-motivated to follow good practices by stressing to them why it's in their best interest to do it. Teenagers are motivated by social pressure, and they're concerned about their image. One great way to motivate teenagers is to play to those interests and make sure they understand the connection between gum diseases and bad breath. Who wants bad breath? Not a teenager. The way to avoid bad breath is to make sure your gums are healthy. Brush twice a day and floss once a day.
What about the appearance of teeth?
Cavities can occur in front teeth. What looks worse? [Tell teens] the best way to avoid cavities in your front teeth is to brush and floss. What's less attractive than bleeding gums? Teenagers have come in with bleeding, sore, swollen gums that cover part of the tooth surface. All the teenager needs to understand is look at your gums. If you don't like the way they look, there are very easy ways to fix it. Brush twice a day, floss. You don't necessarily need to jump to things like tooth whitening.
What's your take on teeth whitening?
The whitening is something that should not be as much of a priority as making sure your teeth are healthy. A lot of things that people mistakenly believe can be improved by tooth whitening cannot. Cavities often appear as discolorations on the tooth structure. If your teeth are marked and pocketed and marred by cavities, tooth whitening is not going to help them. It's a good idea before patients consider tooth whitening to see your dentist because your dentist can help distinguish between those discolorations that can be remedied by tooth whitening and those discolorations that may be caused by other things.
What about acidic foods and beverages?
Citric acid, which can make things sour, can sometimes degrade the tooth structure. I have patients who have a habit of sucking lemons, and the enamel suffers as a result. The enamel cannot be replaced when that happens."
What can grandparents do to help their grandkids' dental health?
There are some things that might have changed since grandparents were grandparents. A lot of people don't realize that children should be seeing the dentist for the first time six months after their first tooth appears or by the age of one. And certainly limiting sugary snacks and beverages.
What about the best toothpastes for kids?
Look for the ADA seal of acceptance. That will tell you that whatever it is that the product says it will do, it will actually do. Be sure that you're using a toothpaste with fluoride.
What else do you wish more Americans knew about dental care?
I wish people knew how clearly how easy it is to have healthy teeth. There are just some very simple things that people can do every day that cost pennies and will go so far. That's brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing at least once a day, and seeing your dentist on a regular basis. It's so easy.
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