The $3 Tool to Protect Against Alzheimer's and Cancer

The long syringe of anesthetic... the minty grit of cleaning paste... the high-pitched whirr of the drill...

For many folks, all these are merely a prelude to the worst part of a dentist visit:

"Have you been flossing?"

If you lie about your habits, then you're not alone... Survey results show that more than one-fourth of Americans lie to their dentist at every visit.

And more than 30% of the folks in the survey, run by the American Academy of Periodontology, said they'd rather do unpleasant chores – like scrubbing the toilet – instead of flossing.

We think that number is far too low. Other studies show only about 30% of Americans floss their teeth with any regularity. So not only are folks lying to their dentists... they're also lying to the survey takers.

For floss haters, it's an uncomfortable process that doesn't seem all that important. Even folks on my research team are squeamish about it.

But skipping out on floss is lazy... and downright dangerous to your health.

Flossing every day could save your life.

Flossing removes the plaque buildup in your gums that brushing can't reach. Getting that bacteria away from your gums means the bugs can't get into your gums and therefore, into your bloodstream.

Gum disease is prevalent in about half the adult population. And lately, more and more research demonstrates just how many different kinds of bacteria grow in our mouths – the count now is up to 500 species.

Some of the more devastating ones, like P. gingivalis, travel through the blood to other sites and actually stick themselves to our cells, causing inflammation.

And new research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research's annual conference found a link between certain types of gum bacteria and pancreatic cancer.

The strongest connection: the bacteria P. gingivalis. Study participants who had this type of bug in their gums had a 59% higher risk of getting pancreatic cancer than those without the bug. Pancreatic cancer, as we've discussed before, is the deadliest form of cancer. One of the main reasons for its lethal nature is that doctors often don't catch it until it's in advanced stages.

While we don't know exactly how P. gingivalis contributes to cancer, we do know it pries open passages in the gumline, allowing itself and other bugs to enter the bloodstream. Once in your blood, they can travel everywhere, including crossing the blood-brain barrier.

That's why a study published this spring in the journal PLOS ONE raised concerns. It showed that Alzheimer's patients with gum disease experienced six times faster mental decline than those with healthy gums.

We've also seen evidence that the bacteria T. denticola can find its way to your nerve cells through your jaw. It follows those cells directly up to your brain. While we don't know if these bugs can directly trigger Alzheimer's, we know that they cause inflammation... which in turn damages cells and contributes to the disease.

Several studies also highlight the importance of flossing for diabetics. Those with diabetes have a three to fourfold increase in their risk of gum disease. Scientists are still studying the link between diabetes and gum disease and which condition leads to the other, but one thing is clear – the increased inflammation from poor gum health hurts the body.

This is something I've been saying since I was in medical school back in 1998. Many of the worst diseases, like dementia, stem from infection and inflammation. Fighting these two things will go a long way toward preventing serious diseases.

Flossing is a cheap way to ward off a lifetime of infection, inflammation, and devastating diseases. Our local drugstores here in Baltimore carry single packs of floss for just $2 to $3. It's a small price to pay for a major investment in your health.

And remember, after flossing, don't turn to the alcohol-based rinses. Several studies show that the alcohol in mouthwash increases the risk of oral cancers. The proof isn't absolute, but the link is strong. The alcohol used in the mouthwash breaks down into a known carcinogen, acetaldehyde.

Try a nonalcoholic mouthwash. Just check the label for alcohol. Many brands advertise that the mouthwash is alcohol-free on the front label. And do what I do... Alternate between nonalcoholic and regular mouthwash, 50% diluted with water and hydrogen peroxide (1.5%)... in conjunction with a good brushing and flossing.

A while back, I started using a mixture of baking soda and salt in place of mouthwash and toothpaste. The high pH in baking soda helps kill bacteria and strengthen tooth enamel.

There's no reason not to take this precaution to improve your health. If you're one of the millions of Americans who don't floss, start today. Your immune system (and your dentist) will thank you.

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