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.
Chew sugar-free gum.
Besides freshening breath, chewing sugar-free gum helps keeps gums in good shape. "Gum pulls food particles out of all the pits and grooves in your mouth to help keep bacteria from thriving," Layliev says. Also, chewing gum stimulates saliva production to help the mouth stay moist, says Newhouse. She says saliva production sometimes decreases with age and about 500 commonly prescribed medications can cause dry mouth, which ups your chances of gum and teeth troubles.
Layliev suggests gums sweetened with xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol that acts as an antimicrobial and lessens inflammation. "Xylitol is also great because it satisfies sugar cravings without doing all the harm of true sugar," he says.