A habit that takes five minutes a day can add years to your life and lowers your risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colds, flu and arthritis. In fact, a recent study of more than 5,600 older adults found that one of the simplest–and cheapest–keys to a long life is taking great care of your teeth with daily brushing and flossing, along with regular dental checkups.

Nearly half of adults ages 30 and older have periodontal (gum) disease, a bacterial infection of the gums, connective tissue and bones supporting the teeth that can double or even triple risk for a heart attack or stroke, recent research suggests. That’s powerful motivation to fight heart disease with a toothbrush, floss and excellent dental care! In honor of National Gum Care Month, here are 5 steps to help you achieve  optimal oral health in September and beyond.

  1. Brush and floss twice a day. Although you may have seen recent headlines claiming that there isn’t much scientific evidence to support flossing, consider this: In the study discussed above, those who never flossed had a 30% higher death rate during the study period than those who flossed daily! In addition, the researchers found that never brushing at night hiked mortality risk 20 to 25 percent, compared to nightly brushing. It takes at least 24 hours for oral bacteria to form into dental plaque and then tartar, a hard mineral deposit that can cause gums to get swollen and inflamed, leading to the earliest stage of gum disease: gingivitis. We recommend brushing with a sonic toothbrush for best results.
  2. Use the right flossing technique. Form a C-shape with the floss and wrap it around each tooth to clean its surface, instead of just snapping the floss up and down, which doesn’t clean the tooth properly.
  3. Go to bed with a clean mouth. Since your mouth makes less saliva when you are sleeping to wash your teeth and gums, it’s particularly important to brush and floss thoroughly at bedtime. Dentists also advise using a tongue scraper to remove debris before you go to sleep.
  4. Sugarless gum containing xylitol has an antimicrobial effect. You may want to chew it between meals to reduce risk for gum disease. Several studies also show that xylitol products, such as gum, lozenges, and toothpaste, help prevent cavities.
  5. Get a dental cleaning every 3 months, or as advised by your dental provider. Ask to be screened for gum disease, which typically involves a painless visual inspection and exam of your gums, using a mirror and periodontal probe to check for signs of oral infection. If you have gum disease, treatment typically includes scaling and root planing (deep cleaning of tooth surfaces to remove plaque and tartar). Your dentist may also recommend using prescription mouthwash, dental trays with antimicrobial gel, or oral antibiotics.