Fewer Canadians than ever before can expect to lose teeth because of cavities, thanks to fluoridated drinking water and good brushing routines. Now for the bad news: many of us may lose perfectly healthy teeth because of gum disease.

In addition to brushing teeth regularly and visiting the dentist once a year, you also have to floss to keep the underlying support structure-your gums-in shape, confinns Dr. Bryun Sigfstead, an Edmonton dentist and past president of the Canadian Dental Association. Unfortunately, a national survey by Decima Research shows that while 74 percent of Canadians brush regularly, only 16 percent floss regularly and 27 percent don’t floss at all. That puts three out of four of us at risk of gum disease and preventable tooth loss.

Maybe you rationalize not flossing by saying it takes too much time and makes your gums hurt. But with a little prac-tice it’s possible to floss in under five minutes.

What’s more, once you’ve flossed your “flabby” (unflossed) gums into shape, Dr. Sigfstead promises you’ll find the routine quite pleasant.

What’s so good about flossing? It allows you to go where no toothbrush-electric or manual-has gone before: under the gum line where plaque forms. This sticky bacteria film, which forms within 24 hours of eating, acts as a kind of glue to which sugars and acids stick, causing tooth decay and gum disease. When you break down plaque by flossing, your saliva can keep plaque attack under control for the next few hours by quickly neutralizing food acids and sugars.

It’s best to brush after every meal and to floss once a day, advises Dr. Sigfstead. Ideally, you should floss just before going to bed to keep teeth and gums completely plaque-free for six to eight hours.

If your gums tend to bleed a bit when you brush, chances are you have early gum disease. A stepped up cleaning at the dentist’s office and a better oral hygiene routine at home can reverse the damage. More serious gum disease, however, which may come to your attention when some of your teeth get loose, may require surgical excision of diseased grafting of healthy tissue (usually from the roof of the mouth) to firmly anchor the tooth in place.

While flossing is crucial, its not a replacement for careful brushing. Manual toothbrushes are just as effective as their electric counterparts at cleaning teeth, says Dr. Sigfstead, but electric toothbrushes are useful for people who have trouble manipulating a toothbrush, such as people with arthritis.

In addition, the novelty of an electric toothbrush can help entice a reluctant child to brush.

Combat fear of flossing with the Canadian Dental Association’s quick-and-easy flossing tips (see box). Getting into the habit of day flossing is easier when you floss while doing something else-watching television or listening to music, for example.

If you take good care of your teeth and gums, you can reason-ably expect to have them all your life, says Dr. Sigfstead. It may be too late for 5 percent of Canadians surveyed, however, they said they never brush their teeth.

CAROLINE GRAY

HOW TO FLOSS

  1. Take a length of floss equal to the distance from your hand to your shoulder. Wrap it around your index and middle fingers, leaving about five centimetres between your hands.
  2. Slide the floss between your teeth and wrap it into a “C” shape around the base of the tooth and gently under the gum line.
  3. Wipe the tooth from base to tip two or three times.
  4. Be sure to floss both sides of every tooth. Don’t forget the backs of your last molars.
  5. Go to a new section of the floss as it wears and picks up particles.
  6. Brush your teeth after you floss to increase flossing’s effectiveness.