Keeping your mouth healthy throughout life
Awareness of the oral-health conditions you are likely to face at different stages of life can help you stay a step ahead of potential dental problems, and build a lifetime of healthy smiles.
Dental Health: Pregnancy and Children
Expectant mothers can give children a head start by eating an array of healthy foods and taking calcium supplements while pregnant. Also, taking folic-acid supplements decreases the risk of a baby being born with a cleft lip and palate. After the baby’s birth, parents should wipe the infant’s gums with a soft, damp cloth after feedings, as this helps prevent the buildup of bacteria. When teeth come in, typically at six months old, parents can use a soft children’s toothbrush twice a day to clean the teeth and gum line, where decay starts.
Dr. Mary Hayes, a pediatric dentist in Chicago and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, tells parents there is a risk for tooth decay even in children as young as nine months. “Parents need to pay attention to baby teeth — they aren’t disposable,” says Dr. Hayes, who also recommends parents brush their children’s teeth until they are six years old. “This instills good habits and a routine.” Hayes notes that prior to six years old, children aren’t able to brush their own teeth effectively. Parents can begin taking children to a pediatric or family dentist around one year of age. Another important habit parents can establish is to avoid feeding kids sweet and sticky foods. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as cheese and crackers, for tooth-friendly snacks.
Dental Health: Adults
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report nearly one-third of adults in the United States have untreated tooth decay. Early detection is important: In the early stages, tooth decay is often painless and can be picked up only during a dental exam. A visible sign of the separate dental problem of periodontal disease is loss of bone around the teeth and requires a dentist’s intervention as well.
Risk factors for dental health are often tied to overall health. Diann Bomkamp, a clinical dental hygienist and president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, cites smoking and certain medications as risk factors for periodontal disease. “There’s a direct relation between gum disease and other diseases,” says Ms. Bomkamp. “If you’re on medications for high blood pressure or epilepsy, or have diabetes, visit the dentist on a more routine basis.” (To learn more, read Dental Health and Overall Health.) If you are taking medication for these conditions or have diabetes, talk to your dentist about how often you should go for checkups, as it may be best to go in more often than every six months. Additionally, people of all ages can drink fluoridated water to reduce the likelihood of tooth decay. Most cities have fluoride in tap water — however, the majority of bottled waters do not. If your water source doesn’t have fluoride, talk to your dentist about fluoride supplements.
Dental Health: Older Adults
Even as people are living longer, more older adults are keeping their natural teeth. However, older adults still need to visit a dentist regularly, as they are at increased risk of developing throat and oral cancers (especially those who smoke or drink alcohol heavily). Bomkamp notes that older adults also have an increased risk of dry mouth and may be on a number of medications that affect oral health. For those with dentures, Bomkamp finds, “Many older patients don’t think they need to go to the dentist, but they might not be cleaning their dentures correctly.” If your gums are red and swollen, check in with your dentist, it may be a sign your dentures don’t fit anymore.