We really show off our teeth only when we first get them.

We wiggle the baby tooth that's about to fall out. When it does, the "tooth fairy" slips some cash under our pillow. That permanent tooth arrives, only to be forgotten and virtually ignored as the years go by.

Dr. Henry Chiang, a Newport Beach, Calif., dentist who has launched a 2010 Oral Health Campaign for Seniors, wants to reverse that attitude.

His efforts to make seniors more aware of gum disease and denture care comes at the same time that New York University dental researchers have found the first long-term evidence that periodontal (gum) disease could increase the risk of cognitive dysfunction associated with Alzheimer's disease in healthy individuals as well as those already impaired.

The NYU study offers fresh evidence that gum inflammation might contribute to brain inflammation, neurodegeneration and Alzheimer's.

Dr. Chiang adds dry mouth conditions can exacerbate the problem. "For patients who suffer from dry mouth, contaminated dentures pose potential health risks. Dentures are porous and can harbor a huge number of harmful bacteria.

"In addition, the likelihood of dry mouth increases with the number of medications a person takes. Since people over 65 use an average of three prescriptions and two over-the-counter medications per day, they stand a good chance of suffering dry mouth. Denture wearers with reduced salivary flow should be particularly concerned about the cleanliness of their dentures and serious health risks associated with contaminated dentures."

Question: Will regular brushing solve this problem?

Answer: Some seniors lose dexterity, and that's a challenge to having a clean mouth.

And, let's face it, most people don't brush a full two minutes as recommended. The older population brushes even less.

Question: What about using an electric toothbrush?

Answer: This is definitely a good option. But the electric brush can actually cause more harm to gums if the person brushes too hard.

Question: Do you believe proper denture care can solve periodontal problems?

Answer: Some people a lot of people sleep with their dentures in place. Dentures are plastic so they are porous. They should be brushed with a little warm soap and water, not toothpaste and not hot water. And no one definitely should sleep with them in place.

Question: Do a lot of seniors have dentures?

Answer: There are definitely more seniors with teeth into older age than before. But medications can dry out the mouth and this reduces the salivary flow and increases acidity in the mouth.

If the bacteria gets spent inside, it's ingested inside your body. We find a lot of it the same as plaque in arteries. And it's twice as likely to lead to cardiovascular problems if it exists.

Question: Are we aware of these problems?

Answer: Often not, because so many seniors don't go to see a dentist. They may lack dental insurance. Meanwhile, they swallow the plaque constantly.

Question: Are people afraid to go to the dentist?

Answer: Often they associate it with an unpleasant experience. Still, they should be in the dentist's chair at least every six months. They will discover it's not always unpleasant.

Question: And in between those visits?

Answer: About 60 percent of the senior population has fillings or crowns. I recommend flossing right after meals, brushing morning and night. And yes, do see your dentist.

Jane Glenn Haas writes for The Orange County (Calif.) Register. E-mail her at jghaas@cox.net. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.