Dental health in your fifth decade and beyond | Dr. Rich

Research has shown that a person’s overall health is influenced by their happiness, the depth of their relationships, diet, exercise, and yes, even a periodic glass of red wine.

To maximize your chances of being able to finish your life with healthy and beautiful teeth, a few specific suggestions are in order.

Most of us already know about eating less, exercising more, watching our cholesterol, buckling up, getting some Omega 3’s in our diet and eating more whole vs. processed foods. What you may not be aware of is how much your oral health influences your longevity. It is said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” I would add “and the gums are the portal to the heart.” It may not sound as poetic, but it’s even more true.

Researchers continue to uncover more connections between periodontal, or “gum” disease, and systemic diseases like atherosclerotic heart disease. Undiagnosed or untreated, periodontal disease is caused by your body’s immune response to the bacteria that inflame and eventually penetrate the tissues of your gums, where they get into your bloodstream.

In fact, a specific oral bacterial pathogen responsible for gum disease, p. gingivalis, has been found in the inflamed lining of the blood vessels of the heart in those with heart disease. To put it more simply, the plaque on your teeth can contribute to artery clogging plaques in your heart that will eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Interestingly, those who have had untreated gum disease earlier in life are also at a four times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Once again, chronic inflammation is implicated in a serious condition you would not typically associate with the mouth. Other examples receiving a closer look include arthritis and many auto immune diseases. Research continues and will continue to show just how interconnected our body systems are.

As we age, our overall risk factors for periodontal disease include genetics, stress, smoking, overall immune system health and diabetes. These can add up to dramatically increase our risk for developing periodontal disease. Since it is a silent and often painless condition, most people are completely unaware that they have it until it is advanced. Regular screening and preventive care are essential to avoid the infection and immune response that eventually destroys the jaw bone, causing tooth loss.

Make sure your dental hygienist is measuring your periodontal pocket depths, bleeding areas, gum recession and tooth mobility annually. The appropriate interval between dental cleanings for you should be based on an assessment of the above risk factors and the results of the hygienist’s screenings, not an insurance plan’s arbitrary contract limitations.

Many patients, because of one or more of the above risk factors, find it necessary to seek preventive care more frequently in order to keep periodontal disease in check. Considering the serious potential consequences, it’s a good investment.

Only a couple of generations ago, reaching the age of 50 often meant that dentures weren’t far in the future, if not already a reality. While the number of teeth lost has improved over the years, 75 percent of Americans over age 35 still have some form of periodontal disease. Given the serious health implications of untreated gum disease, that number is unacceptable. We can do better, and we must. With the proper screenings, treatment and effective daily home care, you can have a healthy, attractive smile for a lifetime, no matter your age.

It now appears that a healthy smile reflects a healthy person in more ways than we ever knew! Make a commitment to yourself today to spend more time caring for your teeth and gums. Ask your dental care team what your screening tests show and what you can do to improve your numbers. Your heart will thank you for it.

Dr. Stuart Rich, DDS., can be reached at 253-939-6900 or

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