Mickey Mantle, former star of the New York Yankees baseball team, often remarked, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” He was only 63 when he died. Now, with many of us getting a good chance to live beyond 100, what’s one of the best investments in maintaining good health? It’s cheap, easy, and right inside your mouth.

Tooth decay affects 96 percent of North American people 50-64 years old. The statistics for tooth decay are almost as high for people aged 20-49. One in five North Americans over age 19 have lost teeth. One in four over 75 years of age have no teeth. Last year, the World Health Organization reported that nearly half of Earth’s human population suffers from oral diseases. Something is very wrong.

The problem is that good oral health demands consistent manual work. Everybody knows that brushing, flossing and regular dental visits are crucial for keeping good teeth. But the greatest gap in life is between knowing and doing.

Who knows why, but perhaps prevention is a price too high for people who enjoy laziness for free. According to a report from the University of California, only two-thirds of Americans brush their teeth twice daily. Fewer floss, and the laggards don’t admit their negligence. Many fail to make regular visits to their dentist.

Is cost a factor? Dental bills can be high when treating disease. But the math looks good when weighing a checkup twice a year against the annual cost of sugary foods people buy without hesitation. Taxpayers should note, the cost of excess sugar consumption in Canada is $5 billion in health-care expenses. The U.S. healthcare system spends about $1 trillion per year on the negative health costs of excess sugar consumption.

A toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss cost a few dollars. Cheap weapons to fight the enemy.

Normally the balance of bacteria in the mouth does not injure teeth. But decay can develop from a combination of decreased saliva, poor diet, inadequate dental hygiene, and bacteria that produce high levels of acid. This results in the gradual demineralization of the tooth’s enamel.

Losing teeth through decay is one problem. Gum disease is another, and it’s a common cause of tooth loss. Most people are unaware that 50 percent of North Americans over age 30, and 70 percent of those over 65, suffer from gum disease.

Poor oral hygiene starts with what dentists call gingivitis, resulting in swollen red gums that bleed while brushing teeth. Plaque, composed of microscopic food particles and bacteria, forms around the base of teeth. This gradually hardens into tartar.

Research has linked gum disease to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The American College of Cardiology confirms bacteria can enter the bloodstream and affect the heart and arteries.

Over 400 years ago, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, knew the importance of teeth. “For what I would have you know, Sancho,” Don Quixote said, “that a mouth without molars is like a mill without a stone, and a tooth is more precious than a diamond.”

Today, women seem to be paying better attention than men. One study found that 88 percent of women brush their teeth almost every day at bedtime, compared to 61 percent of men. Among teenagers, another study found 31 percent of girls flossed regularly, and only 21 percent of boys. But even if the girls outperform the boys, these rates are still too low if they hope to live to be 100 with all their teeth in place.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, aka Ken Walker, is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. You can reach him online at his website, docgiff.com, or via email at contact-us@ docgiff.com. Follow him and his daughter on Instagram @docgiff and @diana_gifford_jones.

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