October is often associated with two things: crunchy leaves and crinkly candy wrappers. With Halloween at the end of the month (and most of us opening the candy bag before then), we celebrate October as National Dental Hygiene Month and encourage you to take steps to protect the long-term health of your teeth.
Dental Health Awareness Is Declining
According to a recent survey by the National Association of Dental Plans, only 39 percent of people are aware of the connection between oral health and certain medical conditions, which is down from 52 percent in 2015. While concerning, this also presents an opportunity for awareness and education. Health and welfare funds are encouraged to consider the dental health of all members and dependents across their lifespan when determining dental coverage, starting with preventive visits.
Neglecting your oral health can lead to untreated tooth decay (which affects more than one in four U.S. adults), gum disease (which almost half of U.S. adults show signs of) or even oral cancer in older adults, especially if they use tobacco and heavily consume alcohol.
The benefits of caring for your teeth and gums on your own, and visiting a dentist for checkups, extend beyond contributing to a nice smile. Practicing good dental habits can reduce your risk for heart disease and lessen complications associated with diabetes. If you have been diagnosed with a chronic health condition like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes or emphysema, you may be at an increased risk for poor oral health.
Basic Dental Care
It’s not all doom and gloom though; practicing good oral hygiene only takes about 10 minutes a day.
- When: For two minutes, twice a day
- Why: Reduces plaque and prevents cavities
- How: Use a gentle back and forth scrubbing motion, make contact with gums and teeth, cover all surfaces and don’t forget the tongue
- When: Daily
- Why: Removes plaque and food particles that a toothbrush can’t reach
- How: Gently floss between teeth using a zig-zag motion, slide floss up and down against the surface of the tooth and under the gum line
Rinse with mouthwash
- When: Daily
- Why: Prevent gum disease
- How: Swish about four teaspoons of mouthwash around your mouth for 30 seconds and gargle the mouthwash before spitting it out
Chew sugar-free gum
- When: After meals and snacks
- Why: Protect the teeth and clean out food particles
- How: Self-explanatory; but spit it out – your body can’t digest gum
Eating Habits That Contribute to Oral Health
What: Food and drink choices
The same dietary principles that reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity can be applied for protecting the health of your teeth and preventing tooth decay. Like most health recommendations, “all things in moderation” applies to the foods and beverages you consume as they relate to tooth health. Eating something from the “bad” column won’t automatically give you a cavity, but when consumed in excess, it may cause you toothaches and headaches down the road.
When: Timing your meals and snacks
You may prefer eating three square meals a day, several smaller meals a day or snacking throughout the day, but only one of these is the most beneficial for your teeth. Do you know which one? If you guessed three meals a day, you’re correct, and here’s why:
- Eating a meal rather than a snack improves saliva production. The body produces more saliva to help digest larger meals, which washes away more food and helps neutralize harmful acids before they can attack teeth. This can help protect teeth from cavities.
- Foods that take a long time to chew or that you hold in your mouth (such as cough drops) can damage teeth, as they retain sugar in the mouth longer than other foods.
The same can be said for drinks. Avoid sipping sugar-sweetened beverages or acidic drinks like coffee throughout the day. Doing so exposes your teeth to constant sugar and decay-causing acid. If you choose to drink soda, sweet tea or another sugar-sweetened beverage, drink up during a meal. The food will help neutralize the acid and the time of exposure is much shorter
Dental concerns can arise at any age and are determined by a combination of genetic factors, preventive health habits and the frequency of dental office visits for risk reduction and early detection. When was the last time you visited the dentist for a checkup? If you can’t remember, pick up the phone and make an appointment today. And while you’re at the store picking up Halloween candy, pick up some fresh fruits and vegetables and a new pack of floss too.
[Emily Smith is the Fund’s Senior Benefit & Wellness Specialist.]