Dr. Zorba Paster: Flossing may prevent cancer in addition to tooth decay

2012-07-25T00:05:00Z Dr. Zorba Paster: Flossing may prevent cancer in addition to tooth decayBy Dr. Zorba Paster | Wisconsin Public Radio La Crosse Tribune

Flossing may prevent cancer in addition to tooth decay

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” I can still hear that jingle from the 1950s.

My mom taught me, like your mom did, to brush my teeth every day, morning and night. Since we started daily brushing with fluoride toothpaste, we’ve dramatically cut down tooth decay. Add to this, water fluoridation and good dental care and you have a dental miracle. (Interesting fact: Tooth decay was the No. 1 reason for turning down Army volunteers in World War I.)

Years ago, my dentist told me that flossing was even more important than brushing. I love to brush, but it took me a while to like to floss. Somehow sticking my hands awkwardly in my mouth with a piece of string is just not inherently fun, and it took a while for me to get into the habit.

Flossing is better than brushing for removing dental plaque, that thin film of bacteria around your teeth. It is plaque that causes the gum inflammation that ultimately leads to so much adult tooth loss. Dental plaque is the enemy you want to root out to protect your teeth.

But according to provocative new research from the British Medical Journal, there is another reason to floss — to fight cancer.

Researchers followed 1,400 people for 24 years — all were middle-aged when the study started. Everyone was asked about their nutrition, exercise, eating habits, smoking and general health. Throughout the study, all had physical examinations, which included a full dental exam.

By 2009, 58 people in the study had died, most of them in their 60s. Considering I am in that age group, I call it premature. Going back over the data, they found that those who had dental plaque throughout the study were twice as likely to die — with most of them dying of cancer.

Why could this be happening? The theory is that the bacteria found in plaque initiates a cascade of inflammatory molecules that cause chronic inflammation. It’s these molecules that may start the formation of cancer.

Some scientists believe that at least 20 percent of all cancers are caused by this sort of chronic inflammation. This is not such an “out of bounds” discovery, because other studies have shown a link between breast cancer and periodontal disease while other studies have a link between periodontal disease and heart attacks.

My spin: This is an interesting study, but it’s not conclusive. Still, dental plaque is our enemy. Anyone interested in good health brushes their teeth every day. Adding flossing to this is one step that might prevent cancer and heart disease, and will make you look better.

What’s more, it gives you a chance to call Mom and tell her she was right when she said, “Brush those teeth before you go to bed.” Stay well!

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