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Senior Correspondent

Q. What exactly is tartar, that stuff on your teeth?

Bacteria, mucus, and food particles in our mouths produce a colorless film on the surfaces of teeth. This film is called “plaque.” Plaque contributes to tooth decay and gum disease. Plaque that is not removed can harden and form “tartar.”

Brushing your teeth will remove plaque but not tartar. Once tartar builds up, you need a professional cleaning, one of those fun things we all look forward to. Well, it’s definitely better than gum disease.

Gum disease is common among seniors because it develops painlessly over a long period of time. Gum disease can be aggravated by ill-fitting dentures and poor diet — both of them senior problems. Symptoms include bleeding, swollen or receding gums, loose teeth, a change in your bite, and persistent bad breath or taste.

Gum disease, known officially as periodontal disease, affects about 80 percent of American adults.

Periodontal disease ranges from gum inflammation (“gingivitis”) to a serious stage that causes tissue damage and tooth loss. In fact, periodontal disease is the leading cause of adult tooth loss.

You’re at greater risk of developing periodontal disease if you smoke; suffer from diabetes, cancer or AIDS; are under great stress; are taking drugs such as antidepressants that reduce saliva in your mouth; are a woman going through hormonal changes, or have a genetic predisposition for gum disease.

The American Academy of Periodontology says that about one in three people in the USA may have inherited a susceptibility to gum disease. People who are genetically predisposed to gum disease may be up to six times more likely to develop it, even if they are extraordinarily diligent about dental hygiene. To prevent gum disease, you should brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss daily, see a dentist regularly, eat a well balanced diet, and avoid tobacco.

[Personal note. Several years ago, I started using a high-powered electric toothbrush that cleans between the teeth. I brush after breakfast and before bed, and I don’t use floss. My dentist has been amazed at how little plaque there is on my teeth.]

Periodontal disease is treated by scaling and root planing. Scaling is scraping off tartar from above and below the gum line. Root planing gets rid of rough spots on the tooth root where the germs gather, and helps remove bacteria that contribute to the disease. Medications may be used with scaling and root planing.

Your dentist or periodontist may recommend flap surgery to remove tartar deposits in deep pockets. In flap surgery, the gums are lifted back and the tartar is removed. The gums are then sutured back in place.

In addition to flap surgery, your periodontist may suggest bone or tissue grafts. Grafting is a way to replace or encourage new growth of bone or gum tissue that has been destroyed.

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