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Keeping teeth, gums in shape can mean better health overall

Dr. Beth Buono, an assistant professor at the

Dr. Beth Buono, an assistant professor at the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine, says seniors should visit the dentist twice a year, and some with serious gum disease should be evaluated every three months. Credit: Dr. Beth Buono

If you are neglecting your teeth, you are neglecting your health.

There is a strong connection between oral health and your overall health. People with untreated gum disease, for example, appear to be at higher risk for heart attacks.

"People think their mouth is not linked to the rest of the body," says Dr. Beth Buono, an assistant professor at the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine.

Oral care sometimes becomes less of a priority for seniors, especially those coping with a serious illness. For others, it is simply too costly. Traditional Medicare does not cover routine dental maintenance. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer dental coverage, although premiums and copays can be high.

But as your teeth decay, it becomes harder and more painful to eat. "You need strong teeth to chew the healthier foods, your fruits, your vegetables, your meats," Buono says. "If you can't chew properly, you're going to defer to softer, nonnutritious foods, like carbohydrates, cakes and breads."

Many seniors suffer from dry mouth, a condition they may think is not serious but actually can have severe consequences. "A lot of them don't even think it's a problem, and meanwhile they're falling apart," Buono says. Because dry mouth is marked by a lack of saliva, chewing becomes more difficult. Dry mouth, which is treatable, is often a side effect of medications used by seniors, especially hypertension drugs.

Buono says seniors should visit a dentist twice a year. Some with serious gum disease should be evaluated every three months. If seeing a dentist is a problem because of the cost, Stony Brook's School of Dental Medicine may help. The school is a teaching hospital, so procedures at its Dental Care Center are performed by students as well as faculty. Buono says savings can be as much as 50 percent compared to a regular dentist. Dental students work under close supervision of faculty. "Every step of every procedure has to be signed off and checked," Buono says.

Home care is also essential to keeping your teeth healthy, says Buono, who offers these tips:

DELAY DECAY Using an over-the-counter fluoride rinse or a prescription toothpaste from your dentist can reduce your risk for tooth decay.

BRUSH UP If flossing is difficult, you can buy plastic interdental devices, sometimes sold as "soft picks" or "floss picks," that clean between your teeth.

RINSE CYCLE Use an antiseptic mouth rinse like Listerine that can help lower your risk of tooth decay, cavities and gum disease.

For more information on the Dental Care Center, call 631-632-8989, or go to

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