I think deciding to clean my teeth twice a day was one of the first healthy habits I committed to at around the age of 12 or 13. The days of being supervised to clean my teeth had passed some time before and, like most children, I just wanted to get through this chore as quickly as possible and if I skipped it altogether now and again, surely there was no harm in that …. I was starting to read Jackie magazine at around that age, and I suspect that my sudden interest in a fresh mouth had more to do with the sure and certain prospect of meeting Prince Charming fairly immanently than with a mature, responsible attitude to dental hygiene!
But of course, it was never a decision I regretted. Due to aggressive 1970’s dentistry and no fluouride, I have a mouth full of metal and a couple of crowns like most of my generation, but these days I use an electric toothbrush for the full 2 minutes morning and night and follow up with flossing (one of my best health habits) and what I’m left with is in pretty good shape. The dentist and hygienist are always happy with me and I have high hopes of making it to the end with (most of) my own teeth. (Prince Charming still gives me a kiss now and again too!)
However, looking after our dental health is not just about having a nice smile and fresh breath. Having a healthy mouth is also linked with other, seemly unrelated, health outcomes.
For instance, there seems to be a link between gum health and cardiovascular disease. It doesn’t seem to be direct cause and effect as some people with gum disease don’t develop cardiovascular problems and some people with cardiovascular problems have healthy gums, however people with gum disease have a two to three times greater risk of heart attack and stroke than those without. [Source: Gum disease and heart disease: The common thread]. And gum disease starts with the build up of plaque – that seemingly innocuous substance that the hygienist scrapes off our teeth twice a year, if we haven’t managed to brush and floss it off ourselves.
If increased risk of heart disease and stroke wasn’t bad enough, research carried out by the University of Southampton found that gum disease was linked to a six-fold increase in cognitive decline in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease. And that was over the course of only six months! [Source: Link between gum disease and cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s] An earlier, though very small study, found a particular gum disease bacteria (you want to know which one? OK it was Porphyromonas gingivalis, since you ask) in the brains of 4 out of 10 people with dementia, and in 0 out of 10 people without dementia. [Source: Poor dental health may lead to Alzheimer’s, study suggests] It’s not clear whether the inflammation from gum disease is actually a cause of Alzheimers, and even if it is it’s likely to be one of many causes, but I don’t think I’ll be taking any risks in that department!
Shall I carry on? Other diseases linked with poor oral health include diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, respiratory diseases such as COPD, and pre-term pregnancies.
So what’s our plan of action? Here are some ideas:
- Let’s start with diet – too much sugar, especially in the form of sweets and sugary drinks, is a major cause of dental decay. So let’s get our sweetness from our own good natures and from fruit. (I have ‘fessed up before, but sweets are my downfall in more ways than one!) By the way, the acids in fizzy drinks erode tooth enamel whether or not the drink contains sugar or artificial sweetener. Fruit can also erode enamel but only if eaten in abnormally high amounts (citrus fruits are worst for that).
- I like to do oil-pulling, but don’t think about adding that in unless all the other measures are in place. Brushing and flossing is more important.
- Brush for 2 full minutes twice a day. Electric toothbrushes usually give a little buzz every 30 seconds and a longer buzz at the end of 2 minutes to help us with that. I think electric toothbrushes clean better anyway, and dentists agree, but I have full sympathy with the compostable bamboo ones for eco reasons. If you use one of those, or any non-electric toothbrush, you might find it helpful to use the timer on your phone – 2 minutes is longer than you think!
- The most important brushing is before bed because our mouths don’t produce as much saliva when we’re asleep so we want our them to be as clean as possible. Don’t brush for at least an hour after meals as the enamel can be weakened by any sugars or acids in the food and you risk dislodging tiny particles if you brush too soon.
- Floss each time you brush – if you’re not entirely sure how to do it right, here’s a wee video:
- Gum chewing! I’m not a fan, but chewing gum sweetened with xylitol (which comes from a plant, by the way, it’s not an artificial sweetener) has been proven to prevent tooth decay. Chewing produces more saliva which helps to keep the mouth clean. Some medications cause reduction in saliva, so gum chewing would be particularly helpful in those cases.
So teeth losing their whiteness is natural as we age (the enamel thins allowing the more yellow coloured dentine to show through), but tooth decay and gum disease and their links to problems in other areas of our health are within our control and mostly avoidable. Keeeeeeep flossing (you will need to be a Strictly Come Dancing fans to get that one!)
(Sorry for the lack of pictures today – something went wrong with the upload feature in WordPress and I haven’t managed to sort it out in time! Shame, because I had a hilarious photo of me in huge flares at the age of around 14. Oh well, the joys of blogging …..)