The best way to keep teeth for a lifetime is to maintain healthy gums. Yet more than three in four Americans over age 35 have some form of gum disease. A 1997 Centers for Disease Control survey was even more bleak: It showed more than nine in 10 people over age 13 having some evidence of the disease.
Gum disease starts with dental plaque -- the sticky film of bacteria -- that builds up on teeth, especially when they're not brushed or flossed well. Plaque irritates gums, causes infection, and destroys the supporting tissues around the teeth. The most common signs are swollen and tender gums, gums that bleed during brushing, and persistent bad breath.
Did you know you can "catch" gum disease? Researchers have discovered that the disease can be transmitted through saliva -- from a parent to a child sharing a toothbrush, for example, or a couple kissing.
The good news is that people with gingivitis, the earliest form of the disease, can reduce further damage by daily brushing and flossing, and getting regular cleanings. Those with more advanced cases may have to undergo scaling and planing, procedures in which a dentist or dental hygienist cleans below the gum line. These patients also may be candidates for Periostat, a prescription pill that fights gum disease. When gums are inflamed, Periostat suppresses an enzyme that can potentially destroy the bones that hold teeth.