Five Minutes a Day Can Add Years to Your Life.

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A habit that takes five minutes a day can add years to your life. It also helps prevent everything from heart attacks and strokes to diabetes, colds, flu, and arthritis. What’s more, it even improves your looks and fights bad breath.

A new study published in Journal of Aging Research adds to mounting evidence that one of the simplest—and cheapest—secrets of long life is taking care of your teeth, with daily brushing and flossing. Conversely, neglecting your chompers—and skipping dental visits—can actually be fatal.

How much impact can good oral health have on longevity?

California researchers tracked 5,611 seniors for 17 years, and found that:

  • Not brushing at night boosted the risk for death during the study period by 20 to 35 percent, compared to brushing every night.
  • Never flossing hiked mortality risk by 30 percent, versus daily flossing.
  • Not seeing a dentist in the previous 12 months raised the risk of death by up to 50 percent, compared to getting dental care two or more times a year.

Another startling finding: One major predictor of early death was missing teeth, even after other risk factors were taken into account, the study reported. People who wore dentures had a 30 percent higher mortality risk than those with 20 or more of their natural chompers.

What’s the connection between oral health and long life?

A new review of studies published over the past 20 years links periodontal (gum) disease to a greater threat of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD)—heart attacks and strokes–the leading killer of Americans.

Another scary fact: If you have gum disease—bacterially induced chronic inflammation of the gums, connective tissue, and bone supporting your teeth—your risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke doubles, according to recent research.

Gum disease affects nearly 50 percent of Americans, many of whom don’t know they have it, because in the early stages, it’s painless. One study found that people with higher blood levels of bacteria in the mouth were more likely to have a build-up of plaque in the carotid artery in the neck (a blockage there can lead to stroke).

Inflammation is the leading suspect–it underlies gum disease as well as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and more. Bottom line: if you’ve got periodontal disease, you could be vulnerable to a long list of scary medical problems that could cut your life short.

What are the warning signs of gum disease?

And just as heart disease can creep up on you silently, gum disease is pretty sneaky, too–symptoms may not show up until it is advanced. Still, here are the warning signs:

  • Red, swollen or tender gums or other mouth pain.
  • Your gums bleed when you brush, floss or eat hard food
  • Your gums are pulling away from your teeth (your teeth look longer than they used to)
  • Loose or separating teeth
  • Pus between your gums and teeth
  • Sores in your mouth
  • Persistent bad breath
  • A change in your bite (the way your teeth fit together)

Keeping Your Mouth Healthy

Being more diligent about brushing and flossing—and seeing the dentist–can actually save your life, since research shows that if gum disease is treated, blood vessel health can improve in as little as six months.

Here are some tips that may take you to the next level of oral care:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day, in the morning and before you go to bed.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste
  • Make sure you brush the back as well as the front of your teeth.
  • Brush your tongue, too–that whitish coating you see in the morning is plaque that can cause bad breath and is a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Get an electric toothbrush–the back and forth action of the brush head works better to remove plaque than a manual toothbrush. Most are timed to signal when you’ve brushed for two minutes; three is better.
  • Use an antiseptic mouthwash, or a fluoride or antiplaque mouthwash.
  • Floss at least once a day; get between all your teeth and move the floss up and down several times
  • Buy some disclosing tablets at the drugstore–you chew them and they highlight any plaque that you missed in brushing.
  • See your dentist regularly for checkups and professional teeth cleaning.
  • Eat foods that protect against plaque and harmful sugars: cheeses, peanuts, yogurt and milk.
  • Avoid sticky sweet foods–prolonged contact can damage teeth. And avoid bedtime snacks unless you want to brush your teeth again.
  • If you value your gums and teeth, don’t smoke. Using tobacco multiplies your risk of gum disease by six, makes it harder to treat and raises the risk of tooth loss.

This article was written by Lisa Collier Cool for Yahoo! Health on Feb. 23, 2012.