A couple of years ago the Montreal Gazette had a stunning headline: “Floss or Die!” it screamed on the front page. Another sensationalized piece of journalism, I thought. Not flossing may make you lose your teeth alright, but your life? Then as I started to read the story, I realized that while the headline may have been a little over the top, there was an issue here. An issue of inflammation. If the gums are not in good shape they become swollen and red and bleed easily. This means that there is now an entry for bacteria that live in the mouth into the bloodstream which means that they can spread around the body. If they lodge in a coronary artery, they trigger immune activity and inflammation there, which in turn can cause cholesterol filled plaque to rupture. A blood clot then forms, the flow of blood is choked off and a heart attack ensues.
That “Floss or Die” article was a harbinger of things to come. Inflammation research is now all over the news. You can rest assured that if Time magazine does a cover story on it, it’s big stuff. We may now be able to explain why it is that half of all people who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. Severe inflammation may make even normal cholesterol dangerous. And this story is going to get bigger. Because it now seems that many other diseases, maybe even Alzheimer’s are related to chronic inflammation. How do we know whether we are suffering from low level chronic inflammation? One way is by measuring blood levels of “C-reactive protein,” which is produced by the liver in response to inflammation. I think this will become a standard test. People who have levels above 1 mg/L may be counseled to do something about it.
But what can be done? A diet low in fat and high in antioxidant, rich fruits and vegetables as well as fish has anti-inflammatory effects. A baby aspirin a day, of course with a physician’s advice, also reduces inflammation. The “statin” drugs do this as well, which may explain why they protect against heart disease more than one would expect just by their cholesterol lowering properties. It is also interesting to note that people who have taken anti-inflammatory medication for conditions such as arthritis have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. And research has even shown that people who have high blood levels of vitamins A, C, and E have lower blood levels of C reactive protein. So do people who exercise on a regular basis. And now we have even more evidence that people who don’t take care of their teeth properly have higher rates of heart disease. So eat those veggies, get out there and exercise, take a multivitamin and floss and floss. Maybe that headline about “Floss or Die” wasn’t that sensationalized after all!