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The Problem with Plaque

Here’s something to chew on: In a recent Swedish study, people with high levels of dental plaque were 80 percent more likely to die prematurely of cancer.

The study, which was supported by Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, The Finnish Medical Society, Helsinki, and the Helsinki University Central Hospital, Finland, followed 1,390 participants from 1985 to 2009. At the time of selection, they were between 30 and 40 years old and had no signs of periodontitis—a form of gum disease primarily caused by plaque buildup.

By 2009, 58 passed away. Most of the women died from breast cancer, while the men had more varied forms. The mean age of the women was 61 and for men 60, which is considered premature. The findings, published in the British Medical Journal’s June issue, stated that the amount of dental plaque between those who died versus those who survived was statistically significant.

Plaque’s destructive path

You may know plaque as the fuzzy feeling on your teeth. It feels unpleasant and serves as a good reminder to brush. But it’s more than a coating. This sticky film is made of bacteria and the acids it releases. It eats away at tooth enamel, resulting in decay.

When plaque hardens, which may happen within just a day or two, it calcifies and is known as tartar. Plaque and tartar inflame oral tissues, which can lead to gingivitis and more advanced forms of gum disease. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association estimates that 75 percent of Americans have some form of gum disease.

Don’t let plaque stick around

Combating plaque buildup will help prevent oral health problems—and make your next checkup more pleasant if there is less of it to scrape off.

  • Brush and floss – Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice daily. And don’t skip the floss. Plaque builds up in places your toothbrush can’t reach.
  • Go in for regular cleanings and exams – Home care goes only so far. The tools and techniques involved with professional cleanings do a more thorough job. Your dentist and hygienist can offer hygiene tips and catch problems early, when they are more treatable
  • Eat nutritious, crunchy foods – Raw fruits and veggies help remove debris and neutralize plaque-causing acids.
  • Consider sealants – Discuss this option with your dentist. These plastic coatings may be applied for as an extra defense.

Plaque and diseases

The Swedish study findings are not entirely unique. Other diseases associated with gum disease include diabetes and heart disease—both diseases in which inflammation plays a significant role. To be clear, these are not known to be cause-and-effect relationships, but studies have found they often occur together.

The report has attracted media attention and raised several questions. And, while the significance of this connection requires further examination, it does reinforce the fact that good oral health is part of overall health.

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