Did you know a healthy mouth could be tied to a person’s overall health? Research indicates a link between poor oral health and several chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Poor oral health in pregnant people may even increase the risk for premature births and low birth rates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cavities (also known as caries or tooth decay) are one of the most common chronic conditions in this country. Nearly one in six children ages 6 to 11 has at least one cavity; more than half of 12 to 19-year-olds have had cavities, which often go untreated. And more than one-quarter of adults have untreated cavities. Further, nearly half of adults 30 and older have signs of gum disease. Untreated oral diseases can lead to dental emergencies that take valuable time away from work and school, and cost money.

Fortunately, many dental problems can be prevented through good oral hygiene habits, along with a healthy balanced diet and regular dental cleanings. Try working the following steps into your routine. 

Give those pearly whites some TLC

The American Dental Association recommends brushing twice a day for two minutes each time, using toothpaste with fluoride and a brush with soft bristles (replace the brush every three to four months, or sooner if it appears worn). When you brush, you remove stains and bacteria from your teeth, and keep your breath fresh. On that note, don’t forget to floss! Flossing removes the sticky bacteria (aka plaque) and food that gets stuck between your teeth, and can contribute to bad breath.

Give your children’s teeth some TLC (and teach them how to do it, too)

Encourage your children to appreciate good oral hygiene habits early and often! For kids under 3, the ADA says to start brushing their teeth twice a day as soon as they start to appear using fluoride toothpaste that amounts to the size of a grain of rice. For kids that are 3 to 6 years of age, keep the amount of toothpaste smaller than the size of a pea. Avoid letting children younger than 6 use mouthwash, unless it’s been recommended by their dentist.

Remember, you are what you eat

The foods you choose to eat impact your health—including your oral health. Focus on eating a balanced diet, filled with lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products (visit myplate.gov to learn about portion sizes and get meal ideas). And watch your sweets intake! The American Dental Association warns that eating too much sugar could harm your teeth. Instead, the dental health experts suggest chewing sugarless gum (look for the ADA seal). When you chew it after a meal for 20 minutes, the gum could even help prevent tooth decay.  

Fortify with fluoride

Fluoride is a mineral that helps prevent tooth decay. While it’s naturally found in water, many communities add additional fluoride to the water supply to reach the recommended level to fight cavities. The ADA applauds this, and encourages people to drink fluoridated water. In fact, the CDC has named community water fluoridation one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century, because of its impact on cavities. 

Become a regular in the dentist’s chair

Your oral health should be as high a priority as your physical health and your mental health. Regular visits to the dentist mean clean teeth, of course, and may also give you peace of mind that your breath is fresh, your smile is bright and your mouth is healthy. Talk to your dentist about how often you should schedule appointments and make a habit of it.