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Do you really need that dental work?

Written by Diane Archer

The data is clear that many older adults do not visit the dentist as much as they should. Dental care costs a lot. And, Medicare does not cover dental services. But, little is known about whether you need the dental care your dentist recommends.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Ferris Jabr tells the story of one dentist who performed way more root canals and fillings on his patients and gave them more crowns than appropriate. Some of his patients received 15 or more root canals. Until he was caught by the dentist who took over his practice, the dentist profited handsomely; his patients never questioned his treatment decisions.

As it turns out, there is not a lot of compelling evidence behind a host of dental procedures. Cochrane, the independent non-profit that reviews the evidence behind different medical treatments, says the evidence behind many dental procedures is lacking. Indeed, it is not clear whether people who maintain good oral hygiene need to go for a cleaning and dental visit every six months. They likely can wait as long as 16 months.

Years ago, I remember reading a story in Consumer Reports advising that your dentist generally should not be taking x-rays on your teeth more than once every seven years. Radiation exposure may be low, but it is cumulative. Yet, for many dentists, annual x-rays are standard protocol. Austin Frakt reports in the New York Times that even the American Dental Association believes that people with healthy feet and gums only need bitewing x-rays once every two or three years.

As with many medical procedures, it is virtually impossible for you to know whether a dental procedure is reasonable and necessary. So, it is all the more important that you choose your dentist carefully. Find out whether the dentist routinely recommends multiple crowns and fillings or performs many root canals? If so, it might be worth finding another dentist. In most cases, with healthy teeth, less may be more.

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