Cleaning your teeth, flossing and going to the dentist regularly are very important for keeping your teeth and your gums as healthy as possible, but proper oral hygiene is also critical to your overall health, according to a variety of research.
In many cases, oral health problems are a symptom of a disease like diabetes. In others, gum disease can be a cause or contributing factor of a disease. Conditions that are linked in some way to oral health include heart disease, the premature birth of babies and even arthritis in the knees.
As one professor put it, the mouth is part of the rest of the body. And the research proving or at least strongly suggesting a link between various problems of the body and problems of the mouth is growing.
Let’s sort out a few of the many ways that oral hygiene is linked to specific aspects of overall health:
Gum disease is a known complication of diabetes. The condition caused by too much sugar in the blood can change the nature of blood vessels and therefore change blood flow. Reduce blood flow in the mouth can weaken gums and increase their vulnerability to infection, according to multiple researchers. In addition, the high glucose levels that go along with untreated diabetes can encourage the growth of bacteria in the mouth.
A study from 2011 found that dentists had 73 percent accuracy in identifying diabetics by counting the number of missing teeth and looking for abnormal pockets between teeth and gums. When combined with blood testing, the dentists were 92 percent accurate in identifying diabetics. This is important because it is believed that as many as 7 million people have diabetes and are unaware they have the condition.
Multiple studies have shown a link between gum disease in the mouth and a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. One was a 2003 review of previous studies that found an increase of 19 percent in the risk of people with periodontal disease developing heart disease when compared with people who didn’t have gum disease.
The precise reason for the link isn’t clear. It could be because gum disease increases overall inflammation in the body, and inflammation is a risk factor for heart problems. Other researchers have suggested that bacteria from the mouth can get into the bloodstream and contribute to the plaque already forming in the arteries. A study from 2005 has found oral bacteria in artery plaque.
But it can’t be said definitively that poor oral health causes heart problems. The conditions share many risk factors, like smoking, diabetes and old age, and this could be the complete explanation of why they occur in the same people. This is the current thinking of the American Heart Association.
Still, there is a stronger link between oral issues and heart issues where some kinds of heart disease are involved. Endocarditis is an inflammation of a heart valve lining and is caused by bacteria, including oral bacteria. Ironically, brushing your teeth when your gums are badly damaged can tear gum tissue and let bacteria get into the bloodstream, but endocarditis is rare and not something most people have to worry about.
Research has show a link between periodontal disease in women who are pregnant and a greater risk of premature birth. These studies have been unable to prove that gum issues can cause premature birth, but researchers are speculating that an immune response to an infection in the mouth could cause an acceleration of the birth process. Unfortunately, treating the gum infections doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of delivering early.
In addition, a 2011 study conducted in Australia found that women with gum disease take longer to get pregnant than those without it.
Arthritis Of The Knee
A study from 2012 indicates that bacteria of the mouth may contribute to both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers took samples of the synovial fluid found around the joints from 36 different people who hard arthritis, and five of those had oral bacteria in this fluid. In two of those patients, this bacteria was genetically matched to the specific bacteria found in their mouths.
This means that according to this study, bacteria in the joints can make arthritis worse. But since the study was small, additional research is necessary to strengthen the link between oral bacteria and the worsening of arthritis.
Mouth bacteria can also find its way to the lungs when an infected person breathes in tooth plaque, according to some research. This can lead to pneumonia and other severe respiratory complications. This risk is greatest, however, in people who have underlying conditions that compromise the strength and integrity of the immune system.
Bacteria can also play a role in worsening a chronic lung problem, according to a study. This includes the condition emphysema.
The Connection Is Real
People don’t often realize the connection between oral health and the health of the rest of their body. That’s why so many people don’t both to fill in the medical history forms given to them by the dentist completely. Since they don’t understand the need for the complete information, they don’t think honesty and care in providing it is necessary.
And some people who are taking medicine for various cancers, osteoporosis and other conditions don’t realize that these drugs impact the ability of bone to heal and therefore could impact the healing of an extraction, for example.
For these and other reasons, it’s important for patients to discuss the interaction between other medical conditions and their dental condition with their dentist.