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Are You Too Young for Gum Disease?

Are You Too Young for Gum Disease

Do you think you are too young for gum disease? Think again. A study back in 2005 kind of rocked the foundation of the dental world. Gum disease, researchers said, can start much earlier than we thought. And that wasn’t all. It can also begin without any obvious symptoms.

Up to that point, gum disease in teens and young adults wasn’t unheard of, but it was pretty widely assumed that most people were safe from periodontal problems until their mid- to late-thirties.

Researchers followed 254 people in their twenties who had opted to keep all four wisdom teeth, and what they discovered is that 60 percent already had signs of early gum disease around those teeth at the beginning of the study. Two years later, it had worsened in a quarter of them.

The findings put dentists on high alert. Wisdom teeth usually push through the gums between 17 and 25. The decision to extract them if they weren’t causing any pain or damaging other teeth was constantly debated because there weren’t any studies that proved it accomplished much of anything. But, suddenly, there was a reason to.

“People assume that if you don’t have any symptoms [of gum disease], you’re okay,” the study’s lead researcher, Raymond P. White Jr., told The Washington Post at the time. “What we’re saying is that’s not necessarily the case.”

Who’s at risk?

Of course, keeping or extracting your wisdom teeth isn’t the only decision you’ll make that will affect your gums’ health. In fact, there are a number of casual choices you make every day that carry the potential to either nurture or undermine your gums, like that Red Bull you gulped down between classes this morning. Or those M&Ms you snacked on before practice.

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that diet plays a huge role. Your dentist probably told you during your first check-up (and every one since) that sugar is bad for your teeth. But that’s just scratching the surface. (No pun intended.) Starchy foods, like, gasp, fries, also feed the acids that eat into your tooth enamel.

And too much of the wrong food combined with too little sleep is a recipe for stress, which makes you more vulnerable to infection, and gum disease is an infection.

There are threats that are out of your control, too. Some of you are just more likely to develop gum disease because your parents are the same way, and you inherited the tendency from them. Girls have a higher risk of gum disease than guys. Increases in female sex hormones during puberty can make girls’ gums more sensitive to irritation. You may have already noticed that your gums tend to bleed a little in the days before your period.

But, maybe the most significant influence on your gums’ health is something that’s totally within your control: smoking. If you smoke or chew tobacco, you’re more likely to have plaque and tartar buildup and to show signs of advanced gum disease, according to the American Dental Association.

What’s at stake?

Maybe you’re wondering, If I can’t even tell that I have gum disease, why should it matter that I get it treated right away?

This would be a good time to explain what exactly gum disease is. Gum disease, or gingivitis, is the mildest form of periodontal disease. Basically, your gums become irritated very easily. If you spot some blood on more than a handful of occasions while brushing your teeth, that’s a good indication that you should make an appointment with your dentist.

The most important takeaway here: gum disease is reversible with professional treatment and better brushing and flossing habits. If it’s left unchecked, though, gum disease can advance to periodontal disease, and that can be harder to control.

Gradually, plaque spreads and grows below the gum line. Toxins produced by the bacteria in the plaque irritate the gums. In response, the gums go into panic mode and turn on themselves, and the tissues and bone that support the teeth start to break down. The gums separate from the teeth, forming spaces that become infected.

As the disease worsens, the spaces around the teeth grow bigger and more of the gums and bone are destroyed. Eventually, the teeth can loosen and may need to be replaced.

Even that, however, is not the worst-case scenario. Mounting research is linking the inflammation from chronic infections, like periodontal disease, to an increased risk of more serious problems, including heart disease, diabetes complications, and pregnancy trouble.

All of this is meant to underline a single point: You are not too young for gum disease. The earlier that gum disease is caught, the better. It’s easy to feel kind of invincible in your teens and twenties, but that shield falls pretty fast at the first sign of trouble. You don’t need to be paralyzed with fear. Just don’t turn away from this screen thinking, That’ll never be me.