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Health & Wellness
January 9, 2024

Winning Smile

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If Dr. Michael Senegal could offer you one piece of advice, it might be this: put your money where your mouth is. As a dentist—“a service no one really wants”—he knows that investing in good oral hygiene can pay dividends physically and vocationally.

Not taking good care of your teeth puts you at risk for a host of other health problems, he cautions. Research indicates that bleeding gums can lead to heart disease and is even connected to high blood pressure. “We’re finding that when you go into these tissues that have problems, you’re finding the same bacteria that is in the mouth is now in the blood vessel.” However, “if you can close that pathway to the entrance into the body, you are definitely going to be a lot healthier.”

Then there are the benefits of a good smile that can open so many doors. “Almost anyone who is particularly popular or is doing great things in life… has a great smile,” Senegal observes. “A great smile is a show of health, and health is what everyone is after.”

A winning smile is “fundamental to human interaction,” he says. “We all have ways in which we evaluate one another in terms of their strength, who they are, how they are… you see their body movements, but that smile… A smile gives you entry to things in life that normally you would never have.”

“A smile gives you entry to things in life that normally you would never have.”

Family dynamics

Most people don’t begin to realize the importance of looking after their teeth until they reach at least third grade, Senegal says—the age when they start to become more social and understand the importance of looking and smelling good.

Prior to that, the level of attention we give to oral hygiene is mainly dependent on the emphasis made on it by our caregivers. “The unfortunate part is that if your parents don’t know how, then it’s very difficult for you to get that piece… but if you’re taught to simply brush and floss, it really covers a big range [see sidebar].”

Genetics also plays a part. Some families pass along strong teeth in addition to good hygiene habits, which Senegal has observed over 40 years at his Chicago practice, treating succeeding generations. “What your parents hand down to you is important, and you can build on it. And you have to, [because your body is] the only temple that you’ve got,” he says.

Cleaning is essential to having good teeth—Senegal says daily brushing and flossing is like “making a bank deposit; if you do, you just get the ability to resist the problems that happen with most nutritional issues”—but so is what you put in your mouth. Many people eat things that not only are potentially damaging to the teeth but don’t provide any nutrition for the body because “it’s not really food,” Senegal points out. “And that’s going to reflect in every organ and part of the body.”

Good genes and careful cleaning can only do so much, however—sometimes there is a need for cosmetic help (“now we’re talking about the dentistry that people want”). In such situations, Senegal starts with an exam and making a co-diagnosis: this is where “I listen to what you have to say about what you want, and then we figure out how that would best happen in your mouth.”

There are a number of options: Crowns, where a tooth is “reduced” and a new, perfectly-shaped one fitted on top: “It’s not only beautiful, but it stays in the tooth as your own tooth.” Veneers are coverings that go over the teeth, aligning them and providing a good color.
Original teeth that are OK but dulled can be bleached whiter.

For more severe situations, “folks who have had a lot of damage and they have decided that it’s all kind of over with,” there is the option of an add-on smile. This is “literally teeth that have been shaped for that mouth that they can actually put in. They can’t really eat with them, but they fit onto the teeth in a way in which they can go about speaking and talking to people, taking pictures, and they’re absolutely gorgeous.”

BRUSHING UP ON DENTAL CARE

Good oral hygiene isn’t hard to achieve. Follow these simple steps daily from Dr. Michael Senegal, and you’ll have plenty to smile about.

BRUSH. This needs to be more than the 10- or 15-second tickle many people make do with. Spend at least a minute or two at it, covering all the areas of your mouth.

FLOSS. This is the No. 1 thing that stimulates good gum health. Do it before you brush your teeth so that if it causes any minor bleeding, you then get to clean your mouth out with toothpaste.

RINSE. Don’t forget what Senegal calls the adjuncts: mouthwash, using a tongue cleaner.

REPEAT. Do all this morning and night without fail.
“It’s like the way almost all things are in life,” says Senegal. “You have to work hard for the things you want, but once you get there, they’ll take care of you. Your mouth will take care of you.”

DR. MICHAEL SENEGAL: MY WAYMAKER

There are so many people that have made a difference for me, but if I had to thank one person, it would be Silas Pernell [founder of the educational services division of Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., in Chicago]. I had been trying to get into dental school, and a friend’s mom told me, “Listen, go see this guy. He gets people in college.”

He was over in Dearborn Homes, near where I used to run track in high school. Going under the viaduct to get there, you’re in the ’hood, and I was thinking, Am I going to get some help from here? He pulled me to the side and asked me why I was there. I told him I wanted to be a dentist, and he said, “You sure you don’t want to be a doctor? You don’t want to be a lawyer?” I told him no, I wanted to be a dentist and to go to the University of Iowa. He asked me again, and I told him the same thing.

Then he turned from me and got on the phone with the University of Iowa: “Look, this guy needs some money, and he needs an appointment with somebody who’s going to make a difference for him.”

Then he turned to me and told me to be there Friday at 11 o’clock. I went and had the interview, and I was in dental school, with financial assistance, in a matter of 20 minutes. It was like something out of a movie; Silas had changed my life.

When I was in the room with him, at the door, he asked me if he got me into dental school, would I see the people he sent to me. I told him, “No. I’m going to be your dentist.” And he came to see me; he was one of my patients.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.