. You Forget to Floss
Americans spend $600 million a year on procedures that bleach their teeth whiter than pearls, but many don't put in the less than 5 minutes a day it takes to floss. The result: At least 23 percent of women between 30 and 54, and 44 percent of women over 55, have severe gum (or periodontal) disease, reports the American Academy of Periodontology
Gum disease is a serious bacterial infection that attacks the tissue surrounding one or more teeth and the bone supporting them. It's the number one cause of tooth loss in the United States, but it's far from just a cosmetic issue: When periodontal bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can travel to major organs and cause chronic inflammation. In recent years, researchers have come to suspect that such simmering infections in the body may be implicated in some cases of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and even premature birth.
"When you have gum disease, it's like having an infected, oozing hand. It's that big of an infection if it's generalized throughout the mouth," says Marjorie Jeffcoat, DMD, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and lead researcher on a groundbreaking study that found that women with gum disease were three to eight times more likely to have a premature baby than were women with healthy gums. The culprit: a labor-inducing prostaglandin (similar to the drug Pitocin) produced by their immune systems to combat the infection.
Chronic inflammation may also explain why some people who have heart attacks have no known risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Infection triggers inflammation, which, under normal circumstances, is part of the healing process (it allows infection-fighting white blood cells to reach injured tissue). But when inflammation is chronic, it can damage artery walls and make them more prone to fatty buildup.
Likewise, a chronic bacterial infection like gum disease "can predispose people to cancer," says Lisa Coussens, PhD, assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco's Cancer Research Institute. Though a direct link hasn't been made between the two, she points out that people with other inflammatory diseases face increased cancer risk. For example, people with the inflammatory bowel condition known as Crohn's disease have a 60 percent increased risk of developing colon cancer.
Chronic infection can trigger cancer in several different ways. For example, inflammatory cells contain growth factors that stimulate cells to multiply in an attempt to help repair injured tissue. But by increasing the rate of cell division, this process might also put you at increased risk for mutations that lead to cancer development. When triggered by an infection, immune-system cells also alter the DNA of bacteria-laden cells, causing them to die. But there's the risk that this tinkering "can induce DNA damage and cause a mutation" that leads to cancer, says Coussens.
Women in particular need to pay close attention to gum health. "Flossing is so critical because the hormonal changes that occur in women during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause cause the oral bacteria that lead to gum disease to grow more readily," says David Schneider, DMD, a Bethesda, MD, periodontist. Drugs such as antidepressants, some blood pressure medications, and antihistamines can also raise your risk of gum disease because they reduce the saliva that helps wash bacteria away in the mouth.
Floss at least once a day. Don't know how? Here are some simple instructions from the American Dental Association
: Take about 18 inches of floss and wind it around the middle fingers. Hold a few inches of the floss tightly between thumbs and forefingers. Guide the floss between your teeth, using a gentle rubbing motion. When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it into a C shape against one tooth, and gently slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth. Hold the floss tightly against the tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss away from the gum with an up-and-down motion. Repeat this for every tooth.
Reprint from Prevention Magazine