If you were MacGyver trapped on an island, your dental floss could be the string you need to tie together a raft and get back to civilization. But in terms of everyday use for getting those bits your toothbrush misses – is flossing really that vital? It’s easy to get out of the habit of flossing every night when you are tired or if you fall asleep watching television. And it’s hard to take the time to floss in the morning when you are feeling rushed. And what’s the harm in skipping, anyway? There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between the times you do or don’t floss. So, it’s not like forgetting to floss a few times a week is going to kill you or anything…right?

That’s what I thought until I read an article recently that stated otherwise! Apparently, bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream through the gums, and can clump together in artery plaques. The theory is that these bacteria stick to the fatty plaques in the bloodstream, contributing to blockages. Another theory is based on the body’s response to the bacteria; the oral bacteria can travel through the body, trigger a defensive response which causes the blood cells to swell and an artery to narrow — which then increases the risk of clots.

A recent study from the American Heart Association shows a link between gum disease and heart disease. While still in the early stages of research, one study found types of gum disease causing tooth loss or bleeding gums could increase the likelihood of heart attack, stroke or heart failure. In studying the records of approximately 8,000 men and women 20-85 years old who were treated for gum disease between 1976 and 2008, these surprising statistics were revealed:

  • A 69% increased risk of a heart attack for adults with less than 21 teeth compared to adults who still had most of their 32 teeth
  • A 53% increased risk of a heart attack for adults with periodontal pockets (where the gum pulls away from the teeth) compared to adults with fewer pockets
  • Double the risk of developing congestive heart failure for adults who had the fewest amount of teeth compared to adults who still had most of their teeth
  • Double the risk of stroke in adults with bleeding gums compared to adults with healthy gums

Proving that brushing can only do so much, another study from Taiwan revealed a link between a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes and the frequency of dentist visits for teeth cleanings. Turns out that having a professional scaling (scraping off the tartar from above and below the gum line) at least once a year correlated with the fewest amount of heart attacks and strokes, according to a study of 100,000 men and women who were followed for an average of seven years.

Even though scientists have been studying the link between gum disease and heart disease for a number of years, it’s important to note that these studies are observational. Traditional risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and weighing too much are typically related to most heart attacks and strokes. However, these studies do suggest that until we know more – seeing a dentist once a year and brushing and flossing regularly just might save your life.

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Chicago Skilled Nursing
Chicago Senior Living