Flossing is my favorite activity... said no one, ever. My son hardly brushes his teeth. Why should he? At 21 he’s invincible—or is he? Turns out that flossing, and periodontal health in general, can help us do everything from maintain our height to avoid osteoporosis, premature babies, Alzheimer’s and possibly even pancreatic cancer. It’s an old-fashioned idea that periodontal disease just impacts the gums. The truth is this disease affects us from pre-birth to death because all systems in our bodies are intimately connected and that is nowhere more evident than in the health of our mouths.
1. Spinal compression aka getting shorter
So how can flossing help prevent us from shrinking? The process of spinal compression begins in our 60s, when our immune system starts to deteriorate. Pathogens, including those from periodontal disease, spread into our spinal fluid and infect our discs. Technically this is called discitis (“itis" means inflammation) and the result is weakened discs followed by compressions. Voilà!—we shrink. On top of that, researchers explain that the most common cause of spinal infections is the spread of another infection, through the bloodstream, from another part of the body.
Turns out, the reverse is true, too. Taller people often have better health than their shorter friends. Why? An Australian group showed that shorter people have more periodontal disease than their taller counterparts. A simple explanation is that growth makes demands on young bodies. If children are fighting oral infection, or any chronic infection for that matter, less energy goes into physical development, or height.
2. Pancreatic cancer
You may have heard of the connection between oral infection and cardiovascular disease, but what about the association between pancreatic cancer and periodontal disease? According to a Harvard School of Public Health group, a baseline risk for pancreatic cancer is 19 per 100,000 and this number increases to 61 versus 19 per 100,000 in those with periodontal disease.
3. Healthy pregnancies
Women should pay particular attention to their flossing. Growing evidence suggests that poor oral hygiene and health during pregnancy may induce miscarriage and premature birth as well as inhibiting the growth and development of the unborn child. A landmark study of 400 pregnant women with periodontal disease showed that just 1.8 percent of women who were treated for the disease during pregnancy gave birth early, compared with 10.1 percent who were not treated. Infections are thought to account for between 30 and 50 percent of all premature deliveries. Clearly, there are many causes for problems that can arise during pregnancy and oral infection belongs on that list.
4. Bone density loss
Osteoporosis and bone loss diseases are other problems that fall to women. Despite mixed results, many studies indicate that osteoporosis is associated with tooth loss and gum recession and visa versa. They are both diseases of bone.
Alzheimer’s can stem from the mouth too, but not in the way you might suspect. A Canadian group studied the presence of metal fillings (amalgams) in elderly people and found that there was actually less Alzheimer’s in the group who had more teeth and more amalgams. Fewer teeth indicated worse periodontal disease and more Alzheimer’s. It appears that the bacteria from periodontal disease may be more detrimental to the brain compared to the mercury from amalgams—however, the dose always makes the poison.
The next time you are tempted to skip flossing, just remember a few of these potential outcomes, if you still can. There’s still time to lower your risk of many diseases by keeping that tartar and gingivitis under control.
- Madianos, Phoebus N., Georgios A. Bobetsis, and Denis F. Kinane. "Is periodontitis associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and preterm and/or low birth weight births?." Journal of clinical periodontology 29.s3 (2002): 22-36.
- USC Spine
- Jamieson, L. M., S. M. Sayers, and K. F. Roberts-Thomson. "Associations between oral health and height in an indigenous Australian birth cohort." Community dental health 30.1 (2013): 58-64.
- Brown, R., et al. "Discitis in young children." Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, British Volume 83.1 (2001): 106-111.
- Michaud, Dominique S., et al. "A prospective study of periodontal disease and pancreatic cancer in US male health professionals." Journal of the National Cancer Institute 99.2 (2007): 171-175.
- Cottle L, Riordan T. Infectious Spondylodiscitis. J Infect, Jun 2008; 56(6):401-12.
- Lund, James P., et al. "Alzheimer's disease and edentulism." Age and ageing 32.2 (2003): 228-229.