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Health Matters: Got floss? It's not just for smiles anymore

Health Matters: Got floss? It's not just for smiles anymore

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Dental floss is one of the best tools we have for controlling our oral health. Add good nutrition, daily brushing, systemic and topical fluoride, regular dental checkups and cleanings, and we have all the necessary gear for making our teeth last for at least a day longer than we do.

When you go to the dentist for regular checkups, in addition to tooth decay, your dentist is most concerned with two primary oral diseases, gingivitis and periodontal disease.

Gingivitis is another term for inflammation of the gums. With good oral hygiene, gingivitis can be controlled and even eliminated. The main signs of gingivitis are red swollen gums that bleed easily.

With periodontal disease, all the structures that support the teeth are involved. The gums are often inflamed and pull away from the teeth. The ligaments that hold the teeth in the bone are affected, and the bone often resorbs and forms pockets which lead to loss of bone support. Periodontal disease is the major cause of tooth loss.

In the last decade, studies have shown that disease of the teeth should not be our only concern with periodontitis. There are strong indications that periodontal disease is also associated with other diseases. These include diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, adverse pregnancy outcomes and bacterial pneumonia.

In the connection between periodontitis and heart disease, patients with severe periodontitis have been shown to be twice as likely to have a fatal heart attack and three times as likely to have a stroke as patients without periodontal disease. It seems that the bacteria involved in periodontal disease become systemic by being expressed into the blood stream as a result of daily activities such as tooth brushing, flossing and chewing.

For people with cases of poorly or moderately controlled diabetes, it has been shown there is more severe periodontal disease with associated bone loss than in patients with well-controlled diabetes.

Birth weight is the most important determinant of health for a newborn infant. Pre-term delivery is the major cause of neonatal mortality and of nearly one-half of all serious long-term neurological problems. Recent studies have demonstrated that women who gave birth to pre-term, low birth weight babies had greater extent and severity of periodontal disease than women whose babies were of average birth weight and delivered at or near term.

Increasing evidence suggests the relationship between poor oral health and bacterial pneumonia in people who live in an institutional setting. The evidence is substantial that improving the oral hygiene of hospitalized and long-term care residents can reduce the risk of developing pneumonia.

So, there you have it! Flossing just isn't for teeth anymore - it's for our complete health. Our oral health affects the rest of our body in very direct ways. The investigation into oral-systemic disease connections is a rapidly advancing area of research with new information constantly appearing in literature.

We are well into an era of increased cooperation and study where dental care and oral health play a key role in helping to ensure overall good health.

Dr. Mike Downing, DDS, directs the Community Dental Practice with the Yellowstone City-County Health Department. He can be reached at 247-3333.

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