Many New Year’s resolutions revolve around health — joining a gym, eating better and losing weight seem to be the biggest — but one of the most important health resolutions is much simpler and can have just as great an impact on overall health: flossing teeth regularly.
“The relationship between periodontal or gum disease and overall health is not a new concept,” said Nicolaas Geurs, D.D.S., chairman of the Department of Periodontology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry. “There have been a number of research studies over the past decade confirming the relationship between oral and overall health that physicians and dentists have observed for many years. Gum disease may contribute to or be a warning sign of potentially life-threatening conditions.”
According to the American Academy of Periodontology, these conditions and diseases include:
– Cardiovascular disease
– Premature birth
– Respiratory infections, including pneumonia and COPD
– Chronic kidney disease
– Rheumatoid arthritis
Animal models show a potential link between periodontal disease and obesity, Geurs added. “If infection and inflammation are present in the gums, animals were more likely to be obese. When the infection was treated, they lost weight. We are continuing to study why this is, and we will eventually see if the same occurs in people.”
Geurs said oral health and overall health are connected. The mouth contains a large number and variety bacteria — good and bad — and is the main entrance for two of the body’s important systems; the gastrointestinal and the respiratory. Additionally, the area around the teeth is an interface with the rest of the body, because when there is inflammation and/or infection in the gums — which can be prevented by regular flossing — bacteria, toxins and other molecules that cause inflammation can enter into the bloodstream. These may result in an increase in inflammation in other parts of the body. Inflammation has been shown in research studies to be a contributing factor to chronic and life-threatening conditions.
“We know from research that if someone has periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease, the likelihood of complications from cardiovascular disease increases,” Geurs noted. “Furthermore, if someone has periodontal disease and diabetes, diabetes management can be difficult. Periodontitis during pregnancy can increase the risk of preterm delivery.”
Geurs said flossing removes plaque and debris that sticks to teeth and the gum tissue in between teeth, polishes tooth surfaces and controls bad breath. Plaque is a sticky layer of material containing bacteria that accumulates on teeth, especially between the teeth where toothbrushes and mouth rinses cannot reach.
If left alone, plaque will cause inflammation in the gums and make them swollen or lead to bleeding. Ultimately, this inflammation can lead to infection and then tooth and bone loss. Plaque can also harden into tartar, a mineral-like deposit. Tartar makes brushing and cleaning between teeth become more difficult. It can only be removed through cleaning by a dental professional.
To properly care for teeth and gums, Geurs said to make flossing a New Year’s resolution. He said people should:
– See a dentist regularly, and make sure checkups include gum examinations and x-rays to check for potential bone loss.
– Discuss general health and medications that may affect gum health with a dentist.
– Floss at least once a day, twice preferably, before brushing, so fluoride from the toothpaste can reach between teeth.
If health is not motivation enough to keep a healthy mouth, finances may be. A study in the November 2007Journal of Periodontology found that preventing periodontal disease can lower total health-care expenses. In the study, patients with severe periodontal disease had 21 percent higher health-care costs compared to those with no periodontal disease.
“Flossing is an essential part of any oral health-care routine and is one of the easiest actions a person can take to improve their health,” Geurs said.