This seemingly inconsequential ritual has surprising benefits. Medical research suggests that flossing impacts life expectancy in very unexpected ways. Find out why and how.

Most people see flossing as a tedious and unnecessary chore. Time and again, dentists implore their patients to make it a habit. Those who disagree shrug it off as another pointless task, except when they're trying to impress a date. Having a piece of spinach clinging between one's pearly whites might leave an unfavorable impression on a first encounter. 

This nightly ritual is an efficient way to maintain a cleaner mouth, free from food debris and bacteria. Dental floss can reach into the nooks and crannies between molars and incisors. A toothbrush isn't designed to penetrate such tiny spaces. Mouthwash can kill bacteria by chemical means but it relies on the mouth's gentle gargling motion. That's no match for the rigorous gliding action of flossing. It easily dislodges trapped particles of food. Flossing before or after brushing, ensures that the mouth is completely free from all food residue.

Leftover food particles from chewing attracts bacteria. These organisms release enzymes which over time, can start eating into bone, rendering the teeth vulnerable to infections. Bacteria thrive on sugars which is why sweets are the prime culprits for causing cavities that bore into the affected teeth. This bacterial proliferation can spread and infect other areas of the mouth. Such disorder can result in gum sensitivity and swelling. Poorly maintained oral health eventually leads to inflammation which is deemed the root cause of most diseases.

If gums feel inflamed and sensitive, this could signify the onset of gingivitis. Because gums are filled with vessels that carry blood everywhere, bacterial proliferation can spread throughout the vascular system which includes the heart. Microbial infection in blood vessels can lead to acute inflammation. This in turn, can lead to atherosclerosis which is the hardening of arteries. If the blood vessels in the heart become affected, it could lead to heart disease or stroke (Webmd article). In the United States, one in four deaths is attributed to heart disease (CDC article). This implies that flossing can indirectly lengthen life expectancy.

Another severe form of oral infection is periodontitis. Symptoms include the formation of pockets of pus. Doctors suspect a correlation between periodontitis and diabetes. Research suggests that periodontitis may be an indicator of the initial stages of diabetes. Those suffering from severe periodontitis are three times likely to also have diabetes. This would imply a complex interconnected mechanism in which once condition exacerbates the other. Poor oral hygiene has much more far-reaching effects than previously thought (The List article, BMJ article).

Furthermore, scientists are discovering that neglecting to floss has a direct relationship with memory loss and dementia. An eighteen year study with 5,500 participants indicates that subjects who suffer from dementia symptoms also have a high proliferation of gum disease-related bacteria in their brains. Doctors believe that these may have migrated from their mouths (Reuters article). This is evidence of how deeply intertwined the various systems in our body are.

Don't underestimate the power of good hygiene. Flossing might just be the silver bullet that many overlook. This three-minute task that we so often neglect to do is the simplest way to prevent numerous life-threatening conditions.

Photo by: Lesly Juarez

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