Over 400 years ago, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, realized the importance of sound teeth.
Don Quixote said, “For I would have you know, Sancho, that a mouth without molars is like a mill without a stone, and a tooth is more precious than a diamond.”
Yet many people today don’t appreciate the importance of his message. Today, tooth decay affects 96% of the population. Two out of five North Americans over age 19 have lost teeth. And over age 65 one in five have no teeth, often due to gum disease.
Dental rust, known as periodontal gum disease (PGD), is an insidious process. In its early stages the gum turns from a natural pink to red. Later, small spaces form between the gum and tooth. Called gingivitis, the condition is not usually painful and can remain unnoticed for many years.
However, gingivitis usually turns into periodontitis, and the gum starts to pull away from the crown and root of the tooth creating deep pockets in which bacteria accumulate. The end result is that the firm supporting structures of the teeth are destroyed.
To prevent PGD people must get rid of common misconceptions. You have to do more than just see your dentist for regular checkups or brushing your teeth. Ninety per cent of my patients believed that sound dental hygiene involves only brushing their teeth after each meal.
Professor Giovanni of Padua University, Italy, preached the right idea in the 15th century. He said, “If all particles of food were removed from between the teeth after each meal and the mouth cleaned night and morning, care could be effective.”
But it’s possible to brush your teeth a dozen times after a meal without removing the food between teeth.
To see this result, use dental floss or stimudents after eating blueberries or other food, to see how much food remains between teeth. This ‘no man’s land’ between teeth traps food, promotes infection, and destroys the tough periodontal fibers that cement the teeth in place.
But it’s hard to get this hygienic message across to all ages. Years ago I flew onto the deck of the nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz. This massive ship carries 6,000 sailors with an average age of 19. I was amazed to hear that seven dentists working day after day could not keep up with the dental decay of the crew.
People who get lazy about dental hygiene fail to realize the loss of a tooth means more than just the loss of a tooth. George Herbert, in 1640, wrote, “For want of a nail the horse’s shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle and the kingdom was lost.” Lost teeth leave holes. Nothing supports opposing teeth while chewing. So they too become loose and more susceptible to decay.
I recently attended my Harvard Medical School Reunion in Boston and listened to a variety of professors discussing new advances in medicine. I learned that there may be an end to drilling and filling decay in teeth, good news for those who fear the drill.
This research was reported in the Journal Science Translational Medicine. David Mooney, a Harvard University bioengineer, says that shining a light from a low powered laser, about the brightness of a sunlit day, enabled the teeth to regrow dentine, the inner material that makes up the bulk of the tooth. So far this was only accomplished in rodents.
But Harold Slavkin, a professor of dentistry at the University of California, says that this work in rodents sets the stage for dramatic changes in medical care.
People in the future will be able to regrow their own teeth, hearts and other organs.
Before this happens Cervantes would tell you it’s possible to keep your teeth a lifetime. Be sure to get regular dental checkups, use floss, and keep a tooth brush at the office.
And remember, what Giovanni taught in the 15th century still applies today.
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