Each week, Death by Science kicks down science and technology’s door and demands to see where they’re hiding the primo goods. Often terrifying, sometimes humbling, our discoveries will make you run to the nearest 7-11 and stock up on canned goods and doomsday porn. This week, we examine the claim that flossing prevents heart disease. We also test out popular flossers that may or may not save your life (but they will definitely get food out of your teeth).
People always stop us on the street and ask if there are any simple steps they can take to live forever. We gently grab them by the shoulders, usher them onto the sidewalk and tell them about the miracles that are SKETCHERS® Shape-ups. These shoes not only tone and sculpt your rear end, but also burn calories and improve cardiovascular health.
Just kidding! They do nothing except make you look like Frankenstein’s monster going out for a jog. They are quite possibly the ugliest marker of consumer gullibility ever sold. At least PowerBalance bracelets don’t make you walk like a club-footed drunk after riding the teacups at Disney World.
[If you ever wondered what a Fellini movie starring Karl Malone would look like, this commercial is a pretty good approximation.]
There are, however, some easy things you can do that may prevent an early funeral. No, we’re not talking about diet or exercise; those things are hard and time consuming. (Plus, the mountain of research validating diet and exercise’s effectiveness would take forever to read so we assume it is inconclusive.)
We’re talking about flossing, which is purported to be an easy step you can take to prevent more serious health issues like cardiovascular disease.
Assumptions that basic oral care would help heart health were originally dismissed as just that: assumptions. There’s plaque in your teeth and there’s plaque in clogged arteries, they have to be connected! Recent studies have found that having periodontal disease is a predisposition for not just cardiovascular disease, but also dementia.
Even President Obama reiterated the connection while touting his health care bill at a February 2010 town hall meeting in Nevada:
Outraged by the president’s freedom-hating oral hygiene rant, thousands of patriots responded by rubbing Pixy Stix on their gums and smoking low-grade crystal methamphetamine. Take that, nanny state!
To find out which side we should take on this issue, we needed to know how important flossing is to overall health. We contacted Dr. Robert Bagoff, who teaches implantology at NYU, to steer us in the right direction.
Dr. Bagoff didn’t say outright that if you don’t floss you will have a heart attack and die (though we wish he did, what a scoop!), but he did tell us to err on the side of caution.
Studies on the subject often “skew all the way to the right or to the left,” but considering flossing is something you’re supposed to be doing anyway, it shouldn’t even be an issue. There is also a high enough correlation of proteins found in patients with gum disease and people with heart disease to prompt concern.
“When I have a patient with both gum disease and heart disease, I call their cardiologist immediately,” Dr. Bagoff said. An infection in your leg, for example, could get into the bloodstream and cause problems for your cardiovascular health. The same could be said for periodontal infections.
Preventing heart disease is much harder than preventing gum disease due to the deliciousness of red meat and the comfort of your couch. Gum disease, like some cardiovascular conditions, is genetically predisposed. Some disgusting cretin who doesn’t brush, floss or even chew Trident may never fall victim to this periodontal scourge.
You probably aren’t that lucky, so it’s important to brush and floss in tandem. Floss first to loosen the food and other debris between your teeth, then brush and rinse to send those bastards straight to hell.
Dr. Bagoff says mouthwash is nice, but it’s not as important as brushing or flossing. “It would be like going through a car wash with no brushes; you’d get the mud off but the bird crap would stay on.”
That would make flossing a full detailing job, and who has the time for that? The market is currently flooded with plastic flossers with sales in the billions of trillions (estimated figure).
According to Dr. Bagoff, the plastic flossers that hold a small piece of floss taut aren’t quite as good as normal floss because you end up dragging plaque and food back through the contact point of your teeth, leaving it there to potentially cause gum disease or remind you of a bad meal. Using a new flosser for each tooth isn’t economically viable, but it would be a pretty neat status symbol if you can pull it off. Breaking out a fresh flosser for each row, however, is a good way to prevent the floss in the flosser from wearing down.
Ideally you would use normal floss, but tiny plastic flossers are better than not flossing at all. We took it upon ourselves to test-drive a number of popular brands in order to tell you which one will help you land your future spouse. That, and to promote good gum health.
G-U-M Soft Picks:
We were told that these devices (dubbed “harpoons”) can do more harm than good. Stabbing at your gums can cause infection, thus leading to the very problem you were trying to avoid. Opt for picks with floss threaded on the end. If you have any harpoons laying around, you can always use them to hold together club sandwiches.
DenTek Comfort Clean:
We found the thread on DenTek’s Comfort Clean to be both weak and uncomfortable, like a baby wrapped in wool on an August day. (If this floss review doesn’t win a PEN/Faulkner award, that clunky simile will be to blame. If it does win a PEN/Faulkner award, then we apologize to the family of William Faulkner.)
DenTek Easy Angle:
Well DenTek, you blew it again. This device has a handle that’s anything but “Easy.” (You like that, DenTek? You keep making crappy flossers and we’re going to keep using your products’ names in lazy wordplay.) Crest Glide flossers also use this off-kilter handle and it makes the flossing process more difficult than it already is. These handles are the 3-D movies of the periodontal world: A needless fad that causes headaches and should pass soon.
The flosser with the dumbest name does its job the best. It is simple and the floss is sturdy enough to last for over a week of use, which is far too long to be using one flosser. (Other things to never do with floss: Use it in a public place or smell it after use.) G-U-M Eez-Thru joins the “Great Things With Stupid Names” all-star team along with Mad Men, cous cous and The Beatles. Yes, they have amassed the greatest collection of pop songs ever written and will go down as the most influential band of all time, but their name is a pun which means it is silly.
Have you ever used a bidet and thought, “I wish this was going in my mouth?” If so, then a Waterpik is the device for you. We were surprised they still made these things. If you own a Waterpik it means that you are way too into appliances. It means you are the kind of person who takes SkyMall off the plane with you. It means you own a hotdog bun steamer and three different kinds of vacuum sealers as well. Also, they just don’t work as well as plastic flossers against gum disease.
Nick Greene isn’t a professional scientist, but he tries really hard. Follow him on Twitter!