As a nutrition professor, I thought I was up to speed on which healthy habits can help you prevent heart disease—until a few years ago when my University of Vermont colleague Paula Fives-Taylor, Ph.D., rattled my thinking. In a riveting lecture, this professor of microbiology and molecular genetics explained that something as simple as flossing your teeth regularly could make a big difference in reducing heart disease risk. (That’s when my jaw dropped.) Since flossing keeps plaque-forming bacteria from invading gum tissue, she explained, it helps prevent the body’s immune system from launching into defense mode—a process known as inflammation. Inflammation, she added, was now understood to be both a warning sign and a trigger for a number of medical conditions including heart disease.
Fives-Taylor was onto something. Today, inflammation is so widely linked to heart disease, many physicians routinely order tests for a key marker of inflammation, C-reactive protein (CRP), as readily as they do cholesterol tests.