Spending the time and effort to floss might be a wise investment — not just reducing risks for gum disease, heart disease and stroke — but also in protecting against memory loss and head and neck cancer.

Researchers at West Virginia School of Dentistry are studying the link between gum disease and memory loss.

In an ongoing study of patients age 60 and older, scientists compared participants’ oral health examinations, their performance on a memory test and blood work that measures their level of inflammation to see whether gum disease is associated with memory loss.

Older men and women studied who scored the lowest on the memory test — mirroring early Alzheimer’s disease symptoms — had the most association with gum disease-causing bacteria.

“This could have great implications for health of our aging populations,” said Dr. Richard Crout, an expert on gum disease and associate dean for research at the dental school. “With rates of Alzheimer’s skyrocketing, imagine the benefits of knowing that keeping the mouth free of infection could cut down on cases of dementia.”

Dr. Crout also theorizes that in the future, dentists might be able to administer memory tests to their older patients. Not only would this help identify people with memory problems, it would also be able to show dentists if their patients with poorer oral health care habits choose to be noncompliant with their dentists’ instructions or if their lack of brushing and flossing is due to memory loss.

To examine a possible association between head and neck cancers and chronic gum disease, researchers in New York examined 473 patients — 266 diagnosed with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and 206 control patients. Patients’ periodontal disease was measured by alveolar (jaw) bone loss detected on panoramic X-rays.

Each millimeter of bone loss in the patients studied was associated with increased risk of head and neck cancer. Although some of the cancer patients had not used tobacco or alcohol, smoking and periodontal disease increased patients’ association with head and neck cancer.

The benefits of regular brushing and flossing go beyond a healthy mouth. For tips and tutorials on flossing, visit ADA.org (http://www.ada.org/3813.aspx) and click on the flossing tab.