Albany Times Union
Section: LIFE & LEISURE
Date: Tuesday, December 14, 1999
SYLVIA WOOD Staff writer
Few of the perfect, gleaming white choppers you see in magazines or movies are natural. Most of us aren't born that way.
But that's not stopping an increasing number of Americans from paying thousands of dollars to achieve that ideal with everything from bleaching to gum sculpting.
"It's aging baby boomers," said Dr. Gerald C. Benjamin, a Rensselaer County dentist specializing in cosmetic or restorative dentistry, and a recent winner of the National Smile Contest sponsored by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. "They're also doing sit-ups and plastic surgery."
People used to be happy if they made it to old age without a mouth full of dentures. Yet advances in dentistry over the past 20 years, including community water fluoridation programs, have helped raise the bar.
Combine that with regular maintenance, such as annual cleanings paid for by many insurance companies, and more Americans have a reason to smile.
"For years, we were fighting decay and periodontal disease," said Dr. Fred McIntyre, of the State University at Buffalo's school of dentistry, one of the few schools in the country with a dedicated cosmetic dentistry curriculum. "We were just trying to keep the teeth in people's mouths. People are now coming to the table with a different set of needs. They are the same individuals out there spending money on nice clothes or exercising."
Dr. Lisa Thorn, a family practitioner in West Sand Lake, said she decided to invest in her teeth as a matter of business. Her upper teeth had always been weak. In recent years, she started having problems with chipping and cracking.
"I'm involved in a high-visibility job and I thought it was important to have healthy-looking teeth," said Thorn, 36, who had veneers placed on her teeth in August.
Veneers, one of the newer technologies, are thin, specially made porcelain or resin laminates that adhere to the surface of the original teeth. They can be used to correct gaps, or crooked, chipped, discolored and worn teeth. For broken or severely damaged teeth, dentists use more extensive crowns.
While Thorn won't say how much she spent, such work can range from $200 to $1,000 per tooth, depending on the material used. She said she doesn't regret a penny. "They not only look good, they feel good," Thorn said.
Because of the growing interest in cosmetic dentistry, Benjamin has tailored his entire practice to making teeth not only functional but attractive. He no longer uses the gray-metal fillings, preferring the tooth-colored ones, even though most insurance companies won't pay the higher cost.
In most cases, his patients are willing to pay the difference. "Most people don't have insurance to buy SUVs," he said. "People will find the money to buy whatever they value."
Arden Bull, 57, of Eagle Mills estimates he spent $5,000 to $6,000 out-of-pocket to put veneers on six upper and eight lower teeth. He considers it money well spent because of his job in sales and marketing, where first impressions can make a big difference. "My lower teeth were wearing across the front of my mouth," he said. "I was beginning to develop a bit of an overbite."
Benjamin also replaced all of Bull's fillings and resculpted his gum line. Although Bull said he's always been a big smiler, he said he feels more comfortable than ever showing his teeth. "I think it was life-changing," he said. "My teeth were going downhill."
Because of the cost of cosmetic procedures, including bleaching, dentists recommend that patients do their homework before signing on with a particular dentist.
Besides looking at the dentist's portfolio of before-and-after photos, Benjamin suggests people ask about their training and their participation in continuing education programs. To help provide such training opportunities, Buffalo's school of dentistry opened an Esthetic Dentistry Education Center last year.
"The baby-boom generation wants to age gracefully," McIntyre said. "There's going to be a lot of demand for this in the future."
Sylvia Wood is the Times Union's health writer.