I really like my dentist, Dr. Reiss. He’s in his late 60’s, maybe even in his early 70’s. To say that he knows his way around the mouth is an understatement. But that’s not the only reason I like him. A couple years ago, he told me how he solved a particular problem. Because he’s getting on in years, a lot of his patients were asking him if he was retiring soon. He didn’t like this question; he’s a guy who plays tennis twice a week and keeps up on NYC’s cultural and political scenes with great vigor. So instead of deflecting these annoying retirement questions one at a time, he found a relatively inexpensive way to signal his intentions to anyone who cared: he bought new furniture and equipment for his office. Suddenly, the questions stopped.
As much as I generally dread the dentist’s chair, I always wind up learning something. Yesterday was no exception. I was asking Dr. Reiss about the causes of tooth decay — genetics vs. diet, etc. etc. — when he began explaining why toothpaste is such a bogus product. Any claims that toothpaste makes about preventing decay, whitening teeth, etc., are totally falacious, Dr. Reiss told me, because the F.D.A. can’t and won’t allow the ingredients necessary to perform those chores in an over-the-counter product that children can easily get hold of. (That’s why he recommends an antibacterial product like GlyOxide, a fairly foul-tasting but apparently effective means of killing the bacteria that cause decay.)
The other thing I learned yesterday was far more interesting, with far greater implications. He told me that tooth decay in general, even among wealthy patients, is getting worse and worse, particularly for people in middle age and above. The reason? An increased reliance on medications for heart disease, high cholesterol, depression, etc. Many of these medications, Dr. Reiss explained, produces drymouth, which is caused by a constricted salivary flow; because saliva kills bacteria in the mouth, a lack of it means increased bacteria, which leads to increased tooth decay. Given the choice of taking these medicines versus having some tooth decay, I’m sure most people would still choose the medicines — but I am guessing that most people haven’t thought about the link between the two.
Unfortunately, I have to go back to Dr. Reiss today. At least I’ll probably learn a little something.