Back when we were kids, dentists loved to scare the hell out of us with horrific photos of bloody, red gums and rotten teeth. Terrified that our mouths would end up like that, we'd brush and floss twice a day without Mom making us, at least for a few days after each checkup.
But as adults, far too few of us follow doctor's orders, meaning those nasty photos may not be so far from reality. Almost half of Americans age 30 and up have periodontal disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men account for 56 percent of those cases.
Periodontal disease, or gum disease, happens when the tissues and bone surrounding our teeth become chronically inflamed and infected. In the early stages, gums swell and bleed, but as the disease advances, they actually recede, making it easier for teeth to degrade or fall out. The infection stems from bacteria buildup, which creates a film – plaque – that hardens into tartar. We usually associate plaque and tarter with teeth, but these substances can easily spread below the gum line and infect the soft tissue and bone. And the trouble doesn't always end in the mouth. Several studies link gum disease to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Even if your gums seem healthy now, they won't stay that way if you don't take care of them. Periodontal disease rates shoot up to 70 percent among people 70 and older. So now's the time to get a grip on gum health. Here's how.
Brush (the right way).
Brushing seems like a no-brainer, but it's crucial, and experts say many of us aren't doing it correctly. First off, brushing isn't just about clearing food particles from teeth, so a few quick swipes won't cut it, says Dr. Nancy Newhouse, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. "The main purpose is to create friction on the tooth surface to remove bacteria and plaque," she says. This means two minutes of solid brushing, which most of us don't come close to reaching. "Spend a lot of time focusing on the tooth-gum junction," says Newhouse, adding that you should only use soft-bristled brushes. "Medium and hard bristles are way too abrasive and completely destructive to the gums," she says.
Timing is also key. Ideally, you should brush in the morning and at night, but Newhouse says the before-bed brush is more important, because we don't drink throughout the night, except for maybe a little water, and our mouths produce very little saliva to flush away bacteria. Also brush after meals whenever possible, but don't devour your lunch and then whip out the toothbrush. "Wait for about 30 minutes after a meal before brushing," says Dr. Emanuel Layliev, of the New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. "After eating, the pH in your mouth is very low, meaning it's a very acidic environment, so brushing immediately can wear down the teeth and gums even more."
If you can't brush during the day, then at least find a minute to floss after you eat, Layliev says. But never jab your gums with a toothpick, which damages gum tissue.
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