More than 90 percent of Americans have problems at some point with gingivitis, the inflammation that causes red and swollen gums. The most effective treatment is to brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily. But what about those who don’t? According to the National Institutes of Health, by age 30, 50 percent of Americans have some form of gum disease. By age 40 that number jumps to 60 percent and by age 65 it’s 85 percent!

One way you can tell if you are at risk for periodontal (gum) disease is how white your teeth are. If you have a lot of plaque or tartar on your teeth, it’s going to be tough for you to see the line where the gums meet the teeth. This is because there are no pain fibers in gum tissue so don’t expect any discomfort. The only way to know how well you’re doing when brushing and flossing is to visit the dentist every six months and get an oral exam, cleaning, and x-rays.

What causes plaque? It’s a sticky, colorless film composed of bacteria that adhere to our teeth. The bacteria release acids that attack tooth enamel—the hard outer surface of our teeth—and cause decay and cavities. Plaque can also attach to tooth surfaces, especially along gumlines and on the surface of our tongue. The bacteria in plaque secrete toxins that can irritate gum tissue, leading to inflammation (gingivitis) or periodontal disease. Bacteria release an enzyme called co

llagenase, which breaks down connective tissue holding tooth to bone, causing tooth loss and bad breath.

Plaque is a major risk factor for heart disease as well as stroke. Studies show that people with severe periodontal disease have three times the risk of developing cardiovascular disease than others the same age without periodontal problems. Left unchecked, plaque can lead to more serious conditions including oral cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and even Alzheimer’s disease. The bacteria associated with severe gum infections have been found in higher amounts in the cerebral spinal fluid of Alzheimer’s patients. In addition, a recent study from faculty at Case Western Reserve University shows that the presence of a gum infection increases vulnerability to both HIV and herpes simplex virus infections.

Most adults have had gingivitis at some time; it is not considered a serious disease unless your gums bleed while you are brushing or flossing. A gingival recession occurs when the gum tissue recedes away from the tooth, exposing the roots and leaving pockets between teeth where bacteria can hide and multiply. This problem affects up to 60 percent of American adults over 30 years old, though they may not be aware of it because they don’t tend to visit their dentist on an annual basis as recommended. Recession also makes teeth more prone to staining and decay.

Gum disease is curable, but it can be expensive and take some time. We have lasers that can clean plaque from beneath the gumline. If you are experiencing any of these problems, see your dentist right away! You might need a deep cleaning or even dental surgery. Just like with heart disease or diabetes, prevention is the best cure. See your dentist every six months for an oral exam and cleaning—even if you don’t have any symptoms of periodontal disease, because it’s treatable before you know you have it!