Calcium May Help Prevent Gum Trouble

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GETTING ENOUGH calcium may lower a person's risk of developing periodontal, or gum, disease--advanced cases of which are the leading cause of tooth loss in this country. Dental researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo made the finding when they looked at records of calcium consumption and the extent of periodontal disease in nearly 15,000 people. Men and women who had calcium intakes of fewer than 500 milligrams (or half the Daily Value) had a decidedly higher risk for detachment of the teeth from the gums. The association was particularly evident for adults in their 20s and 30s.

Researcher Sara G. Grossi, DDS, MS, explains that calcium's potential role in staving off periodontal disease stems from its role in building strong bone in the jaw. Consider that periodontal disease is an infection caused by bacteria that accumulate in pockets between the teeth and gums. If the infection progresses far enough, the jawbone that keeps a tooth in place is eventually destroyed, predisposing the tooth to loosen and fall out. But stronger bone reinforced by calcium, the theory goes, is better able to withstand the bacterial onslaught.

The full study results have yet to be published, so the Buffalo research is just a glimpse into the possibility of a relationship between calcium intake and gum disease. But it makes sense in light of the results of other studies which suggest that tooth loss goes hand in hand with osteoporosis--a bone-thinning disease that's known to be related to a deficiency of calcium in the diet.

A 1996 study conducted at Tufts, for example, showed that postmenopausal women who lost teeth were also losing bone density in their hips and the rest of their bodies at a faster rate than women who did not lose teeth. "If you lose bone everywhere else in the skeleton, you're also more likely to lose bone in the jaw," says Elizabeth Krall, PhD, who led that research. Conversely, "if calcium has a good effect on the rest of the skeleton, you might expect to see benefits in the jaw, too."

DIAGRAM: The illustration shows an upper tooth. If bacteria are not consistently removed from the crevices through home care and regular dental cleanings, a bacterial infection can cause the crevices to deepen and form "pockets"-the beginning of periodontal disease. Left untreated, the infection progresses through the gum and into the jaw bone that anchors the tooth. Eventually, the tooth can fall out. But a new study suggests that bone kept strong with enough calcium might help forestall the ravages of gum disease. Three daily servings of dairy foods can help stem a calcium shortfall.

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