Can Good Oral Hygiene Save Your Life?
When you think of efforts that can stave off a heart attack or stroke, you don’t immediately zero in on your teeth and gums. But a growing body of evidence says that what goes on in your mouth could harm the health of your heart and beyond. Find out why dodging the dentist can put your life at risk.
If the eyes are the window to your soul, then the mouth should be the door to your heart. Not just because it is key to a loving kiss, a pretty smile and savoring a meal, but also because poor oral health can be the root cause of some serious health problems, including heart disease. Yet, many Americans, even those with good access to healthcare and insurance, don’t give oral care the attention it deserves. We bypass brushing, forgo the floss and dodge the dentist until there is a problem. Some adults have such heighten dental anxiety they never set foot in a dentist’s office.
But research is unearthing evidence that says that skipping mouth care is a dangerous strategy because what begins quietly at the gum line can later set off a chain of events that can lead to heart attack, memory loss, stroke and miscarriage. And of all the measures we know of that can avert a potentially life-threatening disease, oral care is probably one the most effortless activities one can do.
What Gives at the Gums?
Teeth are hard calcified structures firmly anchored in the sockets of soft fleshy gum tissue called gingiva that covers the ridge of bone in the jaw.
Within a few hours of brushing a soft film of plaque begins to coat the surface of teeth. At first the plaque is easily removed and you can scrape it off without much effort using a toothbrush. Within a day however, plaque begins to absorb hardening minerals from saliva. And in a couple of weeks, it turns into cement-like calcified tartar that can only be removed with a dental tool. It collects on and between teeth and in the gum pockets.
The mouth is also home to bacteria, even a healthy mouth. There’s just no way around it. And bacteria love plaque because it is a particularly cozy environment in which to grow. As soon as plaque begins to build, bacteria colonize like mad. They feast on and ferment sugars and starches from food, which then produces tooth-damaging acid that can cause enamel erosion, decay and cavities.
If the plaque and tartar aren’t removed, the bacteria set up camp in the periodontal area between teeth and at the gum line. At first, the calcifications and colonization causes mild gingivitis, swelling and bleeding of gums. But as more bacteria take hold in plaque- and tartar-laden gums, gingivitis can advance to full-blown periodontitis. Eventually the pus-filled, inflamed tissue pulls away from the tooth, bone is compromised and exposed, and the tooth can no longer stay anchored in the mouth.
Symptoms of periodontal disease
- Red, swollen or receding gums (may look like teeth are getting longer)
- Pain, tenderness or sensitivity
- Loose teeth
- Pus or sores in gums
- Unexplained bad breath
- Change in bite or fit of dentures
Although bleeding while brushing, flossing or eating is a chief symptom of periodontal disease, symptoms can be mild or absent.
Consequences of Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease not only impacts your quality of life, cosmetically, nutritionally and socially, but also your overall health. Behind the scenes, the body’s immune system is bombarded with signals that a bacterial infection is underway. So it brings out all the guns to deal with the invasion by marshalling germ-fighting cells and chemicals. But the problem with persistent inflammatory diseases like periodontal disease is the assault can be relentless and the body doesn’t get a chance to recuperate. It is in a defensive state all the time. Herein lies the problem.
The theory holds that the high load of inflammatory chemicals and leakage of bacteria into the bloodstream can wreak havoc elsewhere in the body. The onslaught of bacteria, immune cells and inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein and other cytokines, may directly or indirectly influence or injure tissue to cause or worsen some common chronic diseases. Researchers are finding that they may make blood vessels more favorable for the build-up of fatty deposits, and affect insulin resistance, blood clot formation and brain cell activity. Bacteria from the mouth can travel to colonize tissue elsewhere in the body.
Conditions linked to periodontal disease include:
- Heart disease and heart attack
- Memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Miscarriage, preeclampsia and preterm birth
- Pneumonia and other lung diseases
- Cancer of the blood, pancreas, tongue, lung and kidney
No one can say with certainty that periodontal disease causes or exacerbates any of these conditions, or whether treating periodontal disease will prevent them, but taking care of your teeth and gums is a good policy, one that can prevent gum disease, cavities, tooth loss, pain and money.
Getting on Your Mouth’s Good Side
Performing oral care correctly and routinely is important for everyone to help stave off cavities and periodontal diseases. Some people however are predisposed to bad gums even when they practice good oral care.
Major risk factors for periodontal disease include:
- Genetic susceptibility (30% of the population)
- Medications (oral contraceptives, antidepressants, blood pressure drugs, chemotherapy)
- Autoimmune diseases (Rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, lupus)
- Poor diet
- Genetic diseases (Down’s syndrome)
- Immunocompromising viruses (HIV, herpes)
It is particularly important to be evaluated for periodontal disease if you are planning to become pregnant or beginning cancer therapy or other treatment that might compromise the immune system.
How to Brush
Dr. Almaawi recommend using a soft tooth brush. Position the brush at a 45 degree angle where your gums and teeth meet. Gently move the brush in a circular motion several times using small, gentle strokes brushing the outside surfaces of your teeth. Use light pressure while putting the bristles between the teeth, but not so much pressure that you feel any discomfort.
When you are done cleaning the outside surfaces of all your teeth, follow the same directions while cleaning the inside of the back teeth.
To clean the inside surfaces of the upper and lower front teeth, hold the brush vertically. Make several gentle back-and-forth strokes over each tooth. Don’t forget to gently brush the surrounding gum tissue.
Next you will clean the biting surfaces of your teeth by using short, gentle strokes. After you are done, rinse vigorously to remove any plaque you might have loosened while brushing.
How to Floss
Periodontal disease usually appears between the teeth where your toothbrush cannot reach. Flossing is a very effective way to remove plaque from those surfaces. However, it is important to develop the proper technique. The following instructions will help you, but remember it takes time and practice.
Start with a piece of floss (waxed is easier) about 18 long. Lightly wrap most of the floss around the middle finger of one hand. Wrap the rest of the floss around the middle finger of the other hand.
To clean the upper teeth, hold the floss tightly between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Gently insert the floss tightly between the teeth using a back-and-forth motion. Do not force the floss or try to snap it in to place. Bring the floss to the gumline then curve it into a C-shape against one tooth. Slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth until you feel light resistance. Move the floss up and down on the side of one tooth. Remember there are two tooth surfaces that need to be cleaned in each space. Continue to floss each side of all the upper teeth. Be careful not to cut the gum tissue between the teeth. As the floss becomes soiled, turn from one finger to the other to get a fresh section.
To clean between the bottom teeth, guide the floss using the forefingers of both hands. Do not forget the back side of the last tooth on both sides, upper and lower.
When you are done, rinse vigorously with water to remove plaque and food particles. Do not be alarmed if during the first week of flossing your gums bleed or are a little sore. If your gums hurt while flossing you could be doing it too hard or pinching the gum. As you floss daily and remove the plaque your gums will heal and the bleeding should stop.
Choosing Oral Hygiene Products
There are so many products on the market it can become confusing and choosing between all the products can be difficult. Here are some suggestions for choosing dental care products that will work for most patients.
Automatic and high-tech electronic toothbrushes are safe and effective for the majority of the patients. We see excellent results with them. Our team all use and highly recommends Phillips Sonicare line of rechargeable toothbrushes.
Some toothbrushes have a rubber tip on the handle, this is used to massage the gums after brushing. There are also tiny brushes (interproximal toothbrushes) that clean between your teeth. If these are used improperly you could injure the gums, so discuss proper use with your doctor.
Fluoride toothpastes and mouth rinses, if used in conjunction with brushing and flossing, can reduce tooth decay as much as 40%. Remember, these rinses are not recommended for children under six years of age. Tartar control toothpastes will reduce tartar above the gum line, but gum disease starts below the gumline so these products have not been proven to reduce the early stage of gum disease.
Anti-plaque rinses, approved by the American Dental Association, contain agents that may help bring early gum disease under control. Use these in conjunction with brushing and flossing.
Daily brushing and flossing will keep dental calculus to a minimum, but a professional cleaning will remove calculus in places your toothbrush and floss have missed. Your visit to our office is an important part of your program to prevent gum disease. Keep your teeth for your lifetime.