Monday, June 24, 2013

Reflections on Dental Floss

What’s in a string?

Does a string acquire any special virtue by finding its way between your teeth and scraping off the plaque that is accumulating there? Is a string still a string when it is dental floss?

There’s nothing very sexy about dental floss when it is used as it is intended to be used. I will grant an exception for the floss that is used to construct thong bikinis.

Whatever your dentist says, however much it costs you to correct the problems that could have been prevented by flossing you are still unlikely to do it.

You had enough trouble adopting an exercise regimen. Flossing seems like one good habit too many.

Think about it. You don’t need a gym membership or special fashionable clothing in order to floss your teeth. You do not congregate with other people to practice your flossing moves. No celebrities are doing public service announcements about the importance of flossing. There are no ads showing the disease-producing bacteria that have taken up residence just below your gum line. No one is making very much money in the floss market.

Beyond the fact that your dentist tells you to floss your teeth every time you have a checkup, you have no outside support to sustain your resolution to make a habit of flossing your teeth on a daily basis. No one is going to look at you and exclaim that you didn't floss last night.

Cosmetic dentistry is all the rage. People are falling over themselves to make their teeth look like Chicklets. But, when it comes to dental hygiene we are less than avid to do what it takes to make our gums be as clean as our teeth are white.

Nevertheless, flossing will save your teeth; it will save your gums; it will save you money; it might even save you from heart disease and stroke.

Dental research suggests that it might be more important than brushing.

The connection between gum disease and cardiovascular disease has not been established definitively, but the evidence suggests that people who suffer from gum disease are also more likely to have heart disease. It seems to be as good an indicator of heart disease as high cholesterol.

WebMD reports:

If you're worried about heart disease, you can easily spend thousands of dollars each year trying to prevent it, paying hand over fist for prescription medicines, shelves of healthy cookbooks, fitness machines for your home, and a gym membership.

Or maybe not. A number of recent studies suggest that you may already have a cheap and powerful weapon against heart attacks, strokes, and other heart disease conditions. It costs less than $2 and is sitting on your bathroom counter. It is none other than the humble toothbrush.

"There are a lot of studies that suggest thatoral health, and gum disease in particular, are related to serious conditions like heart disease," says periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.

So can preventing periodontal disease, a disease of the gums and bone that support the teeth, with brushing and flossing prevent heart disease?

The evidence isn't clear yet, experts say, but it's intriguing. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease (also called heart disease). And one study found that the presence of common problems in the mouth, including gum disease (gingivitis), cavities, and missing teeth, were as good at predicting heart disease as cholesterol levels.

But flossing takes more effort than popping a Lipitor, so most Americans believe that they are taking care of themselves by taking pills. They make excuses for not flossing.

For those among many other reasons, few people are going to look very closely at Jillian Beirne Devi’s article about how flossing saved her finances. The title does not smack of profundity. It feels like it was channeled from The Onion.

In her article, Devi explains that the habit of flossing did wonders for her bottom line.

She is not talking about all the money she saved on dental work, but about the experience of acquiring a new good habit.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles DuHigg said that the best way to develop better habits is to start with one, keystone habit. Once you have gotten into the habit of, say, flossing, it is easier to develop other good habits.

Devi writes:

Keystone habits are effective because, when you stick to them consistently, they create "small wins," a strategy that psychologists use to inspire hope in people who are looking to improve their lives because they help keep motivation high when the road is long.

Following DuHigg, Devi provides us with a model for effective therapeutic change. It’s more about changing behaviors than changing states of mind.

Once she conquered the habit of flossing, Devi applied her newfound skill to a different problem: her burgeoning debt. She attacked the problem systematically and after some time, conquered it. She succeeded because she developed new money management habits:

One night I took a hard look at everything I owed. It was a scary figure -- I was nearly $30,000 in debt. That night I committed to two powerful habits: checking my balances every day, and reviewing my budget weekly. Feeling bold, I also decided to stop using credit cards.

At first, shifting my money patterns was an uncomfortable but necessary change -- just like flossing. Instead of making X's on a calendar, I kept a list of my debt, from smallest to largest balances. As I paid off each one, I took great pride in ripping up the last bill and drawing a red line through the account name.

With my new habits, I was paying down my debt systematically. I finally felt at peace with money.

Five months into my money challenge, my new habits became second nature. And I felt such a sense of relief when I started to notice that the habits were becoming second nature -- money wasn't so scary anymore. Previously, when I wasn't looking at my finances, there was always anxiety around not having enough money. But with my new habits, I was checking in regularly and paying down my debt systematically. I finally felt at peace with money, and 18 months later, I was debt-free.

Think about it, she accomplished all that without a glimmer of insight into why she had let the debt accumulate, without the least bit of awareness about why she had failed to manage her finances and without even getting touch with her feelings.

Who knew?


Anonymous said...

Great piece, Stuart. Thank you.


Ari said...

Excellent. My only comment is that a Water Pik might be a better idea.

For two reasons: 1) Mine seems to get more junk off than the floss ever did, dental visits are easier and the dentist seems pleased.

2) and this one's the biggie: if you spend sixty bucks on a tooth-cleaning gadget, that investment is an incentive to comply with your planned dental-care routine. You don't want to have wasted your money. Might as well take advantage of the sunk cost effect!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I'm not an expert in these areas, but my understanding is that floss can be used to scrape plaque off of the sides of teeth whereas the Waterpik only removes large food particles.

Dennis said...

I, for some reason cannot get into using floss even though I must have twenty to thirty of them in a box. So I use interdental brushes, a SONICARE toothbrush in the morning and a BRAUN 5000 at night. One of the nice things about the 5000 is that it is wireless and lets you know visually and sound wise when to work on each section of your mouth and when 2 minutes is up.
That and I go to the dentist every 2 months to have my teeth cleaned. The dentist and hygienist seems to be quite happy with my current program.
Probably more than anyone wanted to know, but if it helps it is worth it.

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