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Health benefits of flossing may be heartfelt

Taking good care of your teeth may do more than save your smile. It could save your life.

Research indicates that regular brushing and flossing may improve the health of your coronary arteries and prevent certain cancers.

"Recent studies indicate that oral health may be a bellwether for what is going on in the rest of the body," says Julie Miller Jones, professor of nutrition, Department of Family, Consumer and Nutritional Sciences at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms that aggressive treatment of gum disease (removing plaque, extracting teeth, and injecting antibiotics into infected gums) may help restore the cells lining the coronary arteries.

Decreased function of the endothelial cells lining the coronary artery walls is an early signal of coronary heart disease.

"We used to think that cholesterol was the major factor causing heart disease," Miller Jones says. "Our thinking has changed, as we now know that infection and inflammation also play role."

Heart and blood vessel disease is the number one cause of death for diabetics. Periodontal disease also has been linked to diabetes.

A study in the Journal of Periodontology indicates that patients with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop gum disease. Conversely, untreated gum disease, which increases blood sugar, makes diabetes more difficult to control.

"Diabetics have increased markers of inflammation, as well as poor circulation," Miller Jones says.

Studies also indicate that gum disease may boost pancreatic cancer risks. The mechanism behind this association isn't proven. One possible explanation is the inflammation from gum disease.

Men who had reported periodontal disease had a 64% higher risk of pancreatic cancer, compared to those who didn't have periodontal disease, according to a 2007 Harvard Medical School study of 51,000 men.

Chronic gum disease also may boost a man's risk for tongue cancer, regardless of whether he smokes.

Recent research at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo shows that men with tongue cancer had significantly greater average bone loss [from periodontal disease] than those without tongue cancer.

More studies are needed to confirm this association.

"Good oral health is the most important factor for healthy gums," Miller Jones says. "Oral health and nutrition also have been linked."

This means avoiding sugary drinks and foods with high acidic content.
New Canadian research shows that cranberry juice contains anti-inflammatory and antibiotic characteristics that form a barrier between bacteria and gum tissue.

A 2008 study conducted at the College of Dentistry, University of Illinois-Chicago, also indicates that raisins possess antimicrobial phyto-chemicals suppressing growth of some oral bacteria.

"The sugars found in fruit, glucose, and fructose are not as cavity-producing," Miller Jones says.

Taking good care of your teeth may do more than save your smile. It could save your life.

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