A proverb states that, “For want of a nail the horseshoe was lost. For want of a horseshoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost.”
All this due to the want of a nail! Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked that trivial things often decide the outcome of a battle. They can also decide the outcome of your health.
It’s tragic that one in five North Americans have no teeth after the age of 65. It’s also unfortunate that many people naively believe that poor dental hygiene simply means loss of teeth. Think again, because being toothless could end your life.
Mother’s advice was right, that teeth should be brushed after every meal. But Mother can’t be expected to be perfect, and what she didn’t know causes gum disease (gingivitis). What happens is that gums become infected and pull away from teeth, forming deep pockets where bacteria accumulate. And for want of good gums, the result may be bad breath, infection, lost teeth and other health problems.
For example, infection lurking in diseased gums can spread in blood circulation to the heart, causing a condition called bacterial endocarditis. When this happens, bacteria infect the heart’s valves which separate the chambers of the heart.
This can be a life-threatening condition. For example, bacteria can travel to the brain causing a stroke. Or bacteria carried by the blood can create pockets of pus in the kidney and other organs.
Bacterial endocarditis, if left untreated, can, on rare occasions, result in either severe disability or death. Valves infected by bacteria become inefficient allowing some blood to remain in the heart’s chambers. This makes the heart’s muscle work harder and eventually death results from congestive heart failure. What a tragedy all for the want of good dental hygiene!
Several years ago a Scottish Health Survey revealed that those who had gingivitis showed an increase of C-Reactive Protein and fibrinogen in their blood. The blood tests indicated a general inflammatory process was taking place in arteries. Researchers concluded this resulted in a 25 to 75% increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
A report from the Mayo Clinic says that gingivitis has even been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
Gingivitis has also played a role in the epidemic of diabetes. Patients who have diabetes are more prone to develop infections and also more likely to suffer from diseased gums. These pockets of infection make it more difficult for patients to control blood sugar levels.
But what was lacking in Mother’s advice? Unfortunately she had not read enough history to provide the best information about preventing gingivitis. In the 15th century Professor Givanna of Padua University suggested, “If all particles of food were removed from between teeth after each meal and the mouth cleaned night and morning, care could be effective”.
Mothers were unaware that children and adults can brush their teeth a dozen times after each meal and food will still be left between them. This no man’s land between teeth traps food, promotes infection, pulls gums away from teeth and destroys the tough periodontal fibers that hold teeth in place.
The solution to preventing gingivitis is easy and obvious. Some prefer using dental floss. But for years I’ve preferred Stim-U-Dents, similar but better than toothpicks, to remove particles of food from between teeth. And in my 92nd year I have not lost a single tooth.
Years ago I realized how hard it is to get preventative health messages across. I spent several days aboard the USS Nimitz, the nuclear aircraft carrier. The average age of the crew was 19 and it required seven dentists on board to repair dental decay in 6,000 sailors!
Small things in life can make a big difference. It’s been said that a small hole can sink a big ship. And that for the want of a nail a battle and a kingdom can be lost. And for the want of Stim-U-Dents or dental floss, teeth more precious than diamonds can be lost.
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