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Dental care essential to maintaining health

BY DR. DAVID LIPSCHITZ Published: May 7, 2012
At every age, a trip to the dentist is important. Having all your teeth pulled and wearing dentures and plates is no fun and most importantly, readily preventable.

Thanks to improved dental care, fluoride in water, and more healthful lifestyles, dental cavities are less common and many more Americans are able to keep their natural teeth throughout their lives.

Sadly, 108 million Americans do not have dental insurance, and those covered by public programs rarely get the care they need. Federal law requires that every person eligible for Medicaid receive adequate dental care.

Because of a shortage of funds, states deliver dental care to fewer than half of the children who are eligible for Medicaid, and statistics for public health programs for adults are even worse. In Minnesota (the state with the best record), 56 percent of children on Medicaid receive no dental care.

It is not surprising that the Pew Research Center reported a 16 percent increase in emergency room visits for dental problems between 2006 and 2009. In Florida in 2010, there were 115,000 visits to the ER for dental problems at a cost of $88 million.

And dental care given in the ER usually is inadequate. A dentist does not see patients and treatment is limited to antibiotics and pain medication.

Failure to pay attention to your teeth and not understanding the importance of flossing and brushing appropriately sets the stage for lifelong tooth problems. Poor dental hygiene leads to the proliferation of bacteria and the production of acids that eat away at tooth enamel, leading to cavities.

Simultaneously, a clear, sticky substance called plaque forms that is not only harmful to teeth but also leads to irritation and infection of the gum and severe periodontal disease. Cavities can be huge abscesses where severe pain can occur, and because of gum disease, teeth get loose and are easily lost.

Needless to say, bad breath is a common feature. And with advancing aging, increasing tooth decay leads to dental abscesses, loss of teeth, the need for dentures, and eventually, difficulties with chewing and swallowing adequate amounts of food.

This, in turn, can contribute to weight loss, malnutrition and the increased risk of infections.

Of course, with bad teeth comes bad gums. Infection of the gums leads to periodontal disease that we used to believe caused problems that were limited to the mouth — including pain, discomfort and a high risk of tooth loss.

Now we know that periodontal disease has far more serious effects.

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