Future of Dentures in Fast Decay

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009; 10:55 PM

As long as there are hockey players, there will be niche markets for false teeth. But the real news about the future of dentures is that there isn't much of one. Toothlessness has declined 60 percent in the United States since 1960. Baby boomers will be the first generation in human history typically to go to their graves with most of their teeth.

And now comes tooth regeneration: growing teeth in adults, on demand, to replace missing ones. Soon.

This can't be good for, among others, television news. Ever notice how much denture adhesive those programs still shill to geezers born too early for the fluoride revolution?

But gumming your groceries is yesterday's news. This may be the last generation of third-graders to think it hilarious to say, "Your teeth are like stars -- they come out at night."

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If you are one of those obedient doobies who listened to your dentist and had your wisdom teeth removed for no particularly urgent reason, you are hosed.

If, however, you are one of those perverse rogues who refuses to fix anything that isn't broken, hold everything! It turns out that wisdom teeth are prolific sources of the kind of adult stem cells needed to grow new teeth for you. From scratch. In your adult life, as you need them. In the near future. According to the National Institutes of Health.

For thousands of years, losing teeth has been a routine part of human aging. That's over. "We're there, right now," says Pamela Robey. "A lot of people will go and never lose a tooth. With good health care and proper habits, there's no reason to lose a tooth," short of a knuckle sandwich.

Robey is chief of the Craniofacial and Skeletal Diseases Branch at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the NIH.

The introduction of cavity-preventing fluoride into drinking water and toothpaste is viewed as one of the 10 greatest public health accomplishments of the 20th century, right up there with vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It did not occur without controversy. In the renowned 1964 black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) attacks the Soviet Union with nuclear-armed B-52s, hoping to thwart a Communist conspiracy to "sap and impurify" the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people with fluoridated water.

Leslie Seldin has some perspective on this. He graduated from dental school in 1966 and was the editor of "The Future of Dentistry," a report published in 2001 by the American Dental Association.

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