Gum disease: Don’t Get ‘Long in the Tooth’

Donald NorfolkAgeing is usually associated with wrinkles and greying hair, but another tell-tale sign is geriatric gum disease. When we’re young, our teeth are surrounded by a tight fringe of tissue, very similar to the cuticle that seals the end of our finger nails. This tight skin encirclement protects our thirty-two tooth sockets from the entry of food particles, bacteria and dirt. All too often, with the passage of time, the gums change from being firm and tight to becoming swollen, soft and tender. Slowly they recede, exposing more and more of the shaft of the teeth. This gives the impression that their owners are getting ‘long in the tooth.’ Farmers seeking to buy a horse will generally assess its age and general condition by peering inside its mouth to look for the tell-tale signs of gum recession. The same applied during the bad old days of the American cotton belt states, when plantation owners would routinely assess the age and health of African slaves by examining their teeth and gums.

Today most people take steps to preserve their teeth, but many fail to take similar care to protect their gums. As a result, gum disease is now one of the most widespread of all human maladies, according to the World Health Organisation. Today more illness stems from diseased gums than from rotten teeth. If the gums fail to maintain a tight seal around the teeth, numerous small pockets are formed where food debris can lodge and germs multiply. This predisposes to a condition known as pyorrhoea – a technical term meaning a ‘flow of pus’ – which is a major cause of bad breath or halitosis. Worse still, there’s always a risk that this infection may spread around the body. This warning was given by a speaker at a dental congress: ‘The bacteria and toxins from gum infection may be absorbed into the bloodstream, where they are thought to be a significant contributory factor in a wide variety of disorders.’ It’s clear that while the rot may start in the mouth, it doesn’t necessarily end there. This is a particular risk for people whose immune system is weakened by ill-health, fatigue or prolonged stress. A generation ago it was common to prescribe the total extraction of the teeth as a way of ‘curing’ periodontal disease. This seems to me unnecessarily brutal; rather like using a guillotine to cure a headache. Besides, gum disease is eminently treatable. It can be prevented by following a regular routine of dental care to prevent the build up of plaque, and by using tooth picks and dental floss to remove any food debris which lodges between the teeth.

I also advocate a practice which has been used for centuries to improve the circulation to the gums. In ancient Roman the teeth were invariably cleaned with a piece of cloth, which also gave the gums a gentle friction massage. This technique was still being used in the seventeenth century, for there is a record of England’s virgin queen receiving a New Year’s present of ‘Holland tooth-cloths edged with black and gold.’ At the same time in Holland, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, the pioneering Dutch biologist, became the first man to use a microscope to demonstrate the existence of bacteria. He took a sample of fluid from his mouth and was staggered by the vast number of organisms it contained. ‘All the people living in our United Netherlands are not as many as the animals I carry in my own mouth,’ he reported. To protect his gums he took to rubbing them with a cloth. This is a precaution well worth adopting, for a dental study carried out some years ago revealed that rubbing the teeth with a cloth was the second best way of maintaining dental hygiene. (The most effective way proved to be the use of a fibrous chewing stick.)

One of the curious anomalies of human anatomy is that our teeth, which are the bodily structures most liable to perish during our lives, are the ones most resistant to decay after our deaths. Just as castration is a remedy for baldness, so death would seem to be the finest cure for dental caries. But we can’t wait for the grave to provide us with protection against pyorrhoea and gingivitis. During our lifetimes gum disease is rampant, but wholly preventable. One simple way of keeping it at bay is to give the gums a gentle daily massage. This should be done on both sides of the teeth, using a face flannel or small piece of terry towelling set aside for this specific purpose. This practice should become an integral part of our daily health routine.

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