Happy Belated Valentine’s Day! As you indulge in all that candy on sale after Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about what flossing is and isn’t doing for your heart. While I do encourage you to floss that chocolate caramel out from between your teeth, is leaving it too long really going to cause you to develop heart disease? We will gladly give you the lecture at your next cleaning about how poor flossing habits contribute to the progression of gum disease. However, gum disease does not cause heart disease. Rest assured, while your teeth may fall out, you will not keel over because you forgot to floss for 50 years.

For a while, the dental field and the wider medical field pushed a misleading idea that not flossing caused heart disease but this stretched the some research findings a bit too far. While yes, people with periodontal disease are more  likely to have heart disease; one did not cause the other. Those studies showed correlation but not causation. In other words, the same lifestyle habits and genetic factors that contribute to heart disease also increase the risk of developing periodontal disease.

For those of you who may not have heard our hygienist’s lecture recently, let’s review what gum disease is and its causes. It all starts when the brushing and flossing, or a lack thereof, leaves behind irritating plaque against the gum. Gingivitis sets in when the gums become swollen and may even bleed when you do happen to get some floss in there yourself or let us do the only flossing you may have had since your last preventative maintenance cleaning and exam. If you are one of our non-flossers, I know I’m giving you a hard time here. But, I do understand many things get in the way of developing healthy habits. We will talk more on that later on since it is entirely relevant to this topic.

Gingivitis is the first superficial stage that, in some people, will progress slowly and invisibly into the deeper more damaging periodontal disease. Whether or not you would develop this deeper gum disease is usually dependent on if it runs in your family.  In periodontal disease, the whole area around the root of your tooth becomes infected and progressively breaks down taking the gum and bone away with it. In many cases, as periodontal disease becomes more severe and advanced, the teeth get loose and eventually must be taken out. Unfortunately, once the bone and gum are lost, even the most heroic dental surgeries are limited in their ability to recover it. This is why the hygienist pokes that dreaded probe down your gums against the tooth. We are measuring to make sure you are not developing periodontal disease.  If you are, and we can catch it early, most cases can be controlled and managed by your own efforts outside the dental office and keeping up with regular visits to us for what you can’t see or reach yourself.

Those same lifestyle changes that prevent or slow down periodontal disease will also help prevent heart disease.  This, right here, is the connection between the two.  Having gum disease itself isn’t going to kill you. However, outside of poor flossing, those many things that contribute to periodontal disease getting worse over the years can eventually be the underlying reason for an early death from damage somewhere else in your body.  Your gums are simply a reflection of a greater overall problem.  Smoking is the biggest risk factor shared between the two conditions. I don’t have to tell you that smoking is bad for your health.  If you are smoking enough to develop chronic periodontal disease, this is a red flag that it is also enough to be affecting your heart and other organs in a destructive way.  Extreme stress levels also contribute and, unfortunately, are often harder to stop than quitting smoking or may be the very reason someone developed a nicotine dependence.  High levels of chronic stress lower your immune system so your body is less able to heal itself and stave off the periodontal infection.  At the same time, damage to your heart occurs from these unhealthy habits people tend to slip into when they have chronically high levels of stress.  The more unhealthy habits, the worse a person will feel and the less energy they will have leading to even more stress.  So really, the takeaway message here is to ask yourself what you can do to better manage stress and work towards developing healthier habits for your own wellness and longevity.  Once you are an A+ flosser, you’ve probably succeeded in any number of positive changes.  And, if you are still at the point of thinking about adopting a healthier way of life, better flossing is an excellent place to start.