Stumbling Upon the Fountain of Youth

A not-entirely-routine trip to dentist brings me face to face with an anti-aging controversy.

I paid a visit last week to a periodontalist out in the western suburbs to have my teeth cleaned, an event that is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, both having to do with my advanced age.

Periodontalists specialize in treating patients who are, as my late great dentist, Ron King, put it, “long in the tooth.” That’s a gracious way of describing periodontal disease, a condition in which the gums begin to recede from the teeth, placing one’s choppers in long-term peril. Either you keep them exceedingly free of bacteria or they’re going to fall out of your mouth — while also creating all sorts of havoc in parts of your body that you may not think are affected by what’s going on in your pie hole (see this EL feature on holistic dentistry, if you think I’m exaggerating).

I’d been putting this off for a while, figuring that, like anything else health related, I can pretty much take care of myself. I was already a disciplined brusher and flosser, after all, and I kissed my dark chocolate habit good-bye when My Lovely Wife swore off processed sugar several months ago. I even went out and bought some anti-bacterial mouthwash.

But the more I read about this stuff, the more it became clear to me that this is not something I ought to be battling on my own. Daily maintenance is one thing, but actual treatment is something else entirely. No matter what steps I took, the condition would only worsen unless I went in, opened up the hood, and let the mechanics get busy.

As you might imagine, such a confession does not come easily to me. I’ve been ranting for years in this space about unnecessary medical screenings, false diagnoses, and various other products of our broken healthcare system. And now here I am bowing before the altar of conventional medicine the first time I’m confronted with something that could potentially mess me up.

Part of me actually entertained that thought for a while; my more rational side simply said, “Don’t be an idiot. Go get your teeth cleaned. Jeez!

So I drove out there Wednesday morning, trying to tamp down my angst. Ninety minutes in a dentist chair is not my idea of a good time. And I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I’ve got a pretty high pain threshold, except on those occasions when my mouth is turned into a construction zone.

The hygienist was a young woman with a thick Indian accent named Jemma, and she explained the procedure in a matter-of-fact way that left me wondering what the big deal was. She was just going to clean my teeth, she said. Nothing complicated, except for the fact that in some areas of the construction zone, I might find it less troubling, pain-wise, if she planted a little novocaine prior to excavating.

“I haven’t had novocaine, I’ll bet, in 30 years,” I noted. Still, it seemed like a prudent approach.

About 45 mostly tolerable minutes later, I walked out the door feeling pretty good. Anytime you emerge from a particular intense situation, it’s not uncommon to feel a certain lightness, but this was maybe a little different. I wondered if the novocaine had anything to do with it.

I later came across an interesting news item: “Researcher Warns Banned Fountain of Youth Drug May be Making a Comeback”. The drug in question, according to the piece in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is Gerovital H3 (procaine hydrochloride), otherwise known as novocaine.

Apparently, several U.S. longevity clinics have begun dispensing novocaine to their clients in pill form and via intravenous infusions as a sort of anti-aging treatment. This was quite a popular idea in post-WWII medical circles, but gradually faded out by the 1970s, after a study commissioned by the National Institute on Aging revealed that the drug had little value in treating age-related conditions. The FDA banned its use in 1982.

This I did not know. So I’m wondering why a perfectly conventional dentist office would be trafficking in some banned drug, a possibility that oddly raised my opinion of Jemma and her colleagues. A renegade dental outpost in the western suburbs? Ron King, a true maverick in his own right, would’ve been pleased.

As it turned out, it’s a pretty common misperception that novocaine is still at large in dentist offices. As Nicholas Calcaterra, DDS, explains, what the hygienist actually use on me was lidocaine, which has no known anti-aging benefits. And I guess I’m OK with that.

Share your thoughts (2 comments)