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Jennifer Cordick looks at her wedding picture shot on Grand Island not long ago and sighs. To the observer, the twentysomething bride with shiny chestnut hair looks like a model for a wedding magazine. Only Ms. Cordick sees a slight flaw in her smile. Ms. Cordick, that is, and her orthodontist.

The Riverside High School graduate is prepared to pay $3,800 for "invisible braces," which will be hidden behind her teeth. That way, she feels, she'll still have a nice smile for her office, and at the same time correct an overbite that has left a tiny line under her lower lip.

"I want to take care of my teeth," says Ms. Cordick, who plans to spend three years visiting her orthodontist.

For sure, no one, as they might have in years past, will call her "metal mouth" or "tin grin." Today almost one in three orthodontic patients are over age 18. Some are in their 60s or older, finding a great smile a better investment than a cruise or a sports car. These days men and women are keeping their teeth for a lifetime. And healthy teeth can be moved at any age.

As one Buffalo professional woman said: "My new boyfriend thought my braces were kind of cute. They made me look younger!"

Today braces are more "user-friendly," says Dr. Brian Preston, chairman of the orthodontic department at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

"The appliances are less traumatic than they used to be in the old days with heavy wires and big attachments. They cause less pain. And they're prettier in a way, smaller. 'Headgear' is not as common as it used to be."

Dunkirk's Dr. Irene Strychalski, Northeast president of the Society of Orthodontists/American Association of Orthodontists, recalls one woman who had her braces color-coordinated with her outfit for a cruise's captain's dinner!

And "the stigma of wearing fixed orthodontic appliances has vanished," reports a recent Columbia University dental school study. "Patients today can choose brackets that are clear or tooth-colored rather than those made of metal. Gum-colored acrylic retainers, at one time tucked away in dresser drawers, now can be embellished with personalized designs, including tiger stripes, teddy bears, animal faces, surfers and the American flag."

Have you ever wondered what you, or your child, would look like with straight teeth without spending the big bucks first?

Now you can order a free computer-generated photo of yourself from the Society of Orthodontists/American Association of Orthodontists, which represents 13,000 U.S. orthodontists including Western New Yorkers, Canadians and those abroad.

If you decide to get braces, costs will vary depending on what your problem is. Treatment can range from less than $1,800 to around $4,500.

Generally, according to Dr. Strychalski, price depends on the complexity and length of treatment, as opposed to the actual brace. That's why getting braces on the back of the teeth, which is trickier, costs more.

Some dental insurance plans now include orthodontic benefits, like DentalPlus of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York, which carries optional coverage for orthodontic services -- 50 percent up to a lifetime maximum of $1,000 per person, available to any covered family member. Your orthodontist may offer payment plans. In some cases patients can begin treatment without a down payment.

Still, braces can be costly, but it may be more expensive in the long run not to get them.

Almost three in four people, in a survey conducted by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, said crooked teeth could spoil a person's chances for success.

"As we improve a person's smile, self-esteem increases, too," says Dr. Don Poulton, AAO president. Patients report that for the first time they don't feel conspicuous, or they can laugh, without covering up their protruding teeth.

But there's also a health issue involved.

"Without treatment, orthodontic problems may lead to tooth decay, gum disease, bone destruction and chewing and digestive difficulties. A 'bad bite' can contribute to speech impairments, tooth loss, chipped teeth and other dental injuries," says a report by the orthodontists' society.

Early treatment can pay off. Younger children can be treated more quickly. You can move teeth more rapidly and safely, according to the Academy of General Dentistry.

"An examination by an orthodontist by age 7 may be a real advantage," Poulton says. "An early visit to the orthodontist can ease a parent's mind. Our recommendation may simply be 'let's wait and see' while the face and jaw continue to grow."

Most orthodontic problems are inherited, or could be due to thumb sucking or other problems.

Because you're going to be spending considerable time with your orthodontist, choose "someone you feel comfortable with, rather than being fee-driven," advises UB's Preston.

You can get a recommendation for a Western New York orthodontist by calling the Eighth District Dental Society at 876-2115, or by calling a toll-free number, (800) STRAIGHT.

The American Dental Association requires orthodontists to follow dental school with at least two years of post-doctoral, advanced specialty training in orthodontics in an accredited program.

Your family dentist can also recommend an orthodontist. And just as with service, a wise dental consumer can tell the orthodontist that he'd like to speak with current or former patients.

For a free computer-generated photo of yourself, showing how your smile might benefit from orthodontic treatment, mail your photo (and return address) to the American Association of Orthodontists, c/o "SMILES," 401 N. Lindbergh Blvd. St. Louis, Mo. 63141-7816.

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