The main problem, I think, with proper dental hygiene is that most people don't know just how crucial it is to their health. It's not really common knowledge that if you don't take care of your teeth and gums--and clean them thoroughly--it may very well kill you (or at least make you seriously ill). If that message was coming across loud and clear, I'd be willing to bet that dentists would have to do a whole lot less lecturing on the benefits of floss.
You see, the warm, wet atmosphere of your mouth is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And if they're not cleaned out properly or regularly, those bacteria can spread to other parts of your body and, basically, wreak havoc. One recent study out of Japan took a closer look at the health implications of dental care.
The study, conducted by Tohuku University, included 417 patients in 11 different nursing homes. The patients were randomly selected to receive either oral care after every meal or no oral care. The treated group also received professional cleanings once a week from a dentist or dental hygienist. The researchers found that residents whose teeth were regularly cleaned had half as many cases of pneumonia and were less likely to die from the infection.
On the flip side, the investigators found that residents whose teeth were not given additional dental care were almost twice as likely to get pneumonia. In addition, these residents were twice as likely to die from the infection.
Dr. Kenneth Shay of the University of Michigan commented on the study in an editorial. He said: "It is very compelling to have evidence that a common-sense, cheap, anyone-can-do-it intervention could be saving multiple billions of dollars [in subsequent medical treatment of infection], if it were just done. As important as the cost savings, though, should be the improved odor, taste perception, food enjoyment, and social interaction--altogether loosely referred to as 'quality of life'--that occurs when the daily oral care is provided as it should be."
It sounds to me like dental hygiene is something we should start before reaching the nursing home.
Action to take:
Forget the toothbrush and paste; use dental floss, toothpicks, and a mechanical water irrigator, such as Waterpic or Hydrofloss, to thoroughly clean your teeth and gums. Mix 1/2 an ounce of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (the kind you get at the grocery store) with the water you put in the machine. It will probably taste a little funny to you the first few times, but don't rinse your mouth out with water afterwards. Rinsing negates the effects of the peroxide. RH
"Cleaning teeth prevents pneumonia in nursing homes," Reuters Health news, 4/12/02
"Oral care reduces pneumonia in older patients in nursing homes," Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 2002; 50: 430-433