There are a lot of reasons to be on top of your oral health — and especially your gum health. The obvious reason is that, as you get older, you become more and more vulnerable to periodontitis. This is an advanced gum disease that can cause bone and tissue deterioration and, if left untreated, tooth loss. You become more vulnerable to periodontitis with age; according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, an estimated 1 in 7 adults between the ages of 35 and 44 have some form of gum disease, and that amount rises to 1 in 4 adults by the time you reach the age of 65. In fact, the American Academy of Periodontology has stated that 20 to 30 percent of adults have gum disease that puts them at risk of tooth loss. To sum it up: gum disease is no joke!
That’s the obvious reason for maintaining good oral hygiene, and if that’s not enough, there’s more. There is a vast amount of research that links oral health problems to other health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In fact, more than 120 health conditions have been associated with dental problems. That being said, maintaining good oral hygiene and closely monitoring your oral health can help to prevent or detect other health conditions.
Though there is substantial proof of a link between gum disease and other health problems, it has been hard to determine a clear cause-and-effect relationship between these conditions. Though professionals originally believed that the link was found in bacteria, current research suggests that the most likely factor involved in the association is inflammation, as gum disease and related health conditions all involve inflammation in the body. However, “it’s hard to show in these studies what the relationship is because these diseases are all multifactoral,” says Peter Loomer, DDS, PhD, chair of periodontology and implant dentistry at New York University College of Dentistry. With that being said, let's talk a bit about what gum disease is, which health conditions have the clearest connection to it and how to use your oral health to your advantage to prevent or detect other systemic diseases.
In order to understand the relationship between gum disease and other health issues, it’s important to understand what gum disease entails. When we say “gum disease,” we’re mostly referring to what’s called periodontitis or periodontal disease. Periodontitis is an advanced form of gum disease — the next phase after gingivitis — in which gums will begin to recede and pull away from the teeth. When this happens, food particles will get stuck in small pockets between the teeth and gums, eventually resulting in the buildup of bacteria and plaque. As your body tries to fight off the bacteria, toxins are produced that cause gum inflammation and irritation and begin to eat away at the structures that support the teeth. If you’re not careful, periodontitis can result in irreversible breakdown in the tissues and bones that support the teeth and, eventually, tooth loss. So, what other health conditions are linked to periodontitis and why?
The relationship between gum disease and diabetes has the clearest and strongest connection. According to a study published in January 2017 in the BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care journal, nearly 1 in 5 people with periodontitis had type 2 diabetes without even knowing about it. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, this is potentially because severe periodontitis can increase blood sugar, making it more difficult to regulate and making one more susceptible to diabetic complications. And the relationship goes both ways: because people with diabetes are more susceptible to bacterial infection, they are more vulnerable to developing periodontitis. And because a symptom of diabetes is a poor healing capacity, the immune system isn’t strong enough to fight off or prevent the bacteria that causes periodontitis. And to make matters worse, when periodontal disease and diabetes exist simultaneously, the breakdown of tissues is more accelerated because diabetes inhibits proper healing. This is why maintaining good oral health is of utmost importance for people suffering from diabetes.
But there is a silver lining: because of this close relationship, dental checkups can provide a great opportunity to screen for prediabetes and diabetes, giving patients extra time to begin appropriate actions early.
There is a lot of research supporting the relationship between periodontal disease and heart disease, but it’s important to recognize that evidence is not conclusive. However, research has indicated that periodontal disease makes one more vulnerable to heart disease. The connection is hypothesized to be related to the inflammatory C-reactive protein (CRP). The CRP is found in blood plasma, and it is elevated in people who have periodontal disease. Here’s the trick: it is also elevated in people who have heart disease, which causes inflammation in the body. Another possible explanation is that the bacteria in infected oral tissue may be able to find its way into the bloodstream and travel throughout the circulatory system, causing inflammation and arterial plaque. In fact, some studies have found signs of oral bacteria in arterial plaque, and research published in 2010 found evidence supporting the role of systemic inflammation caused by oral bacteria in the development of atherosclerosis. Regardless, as the two diseases share risk factors — smoking, weight, etc. — which could also explain their tendency to occur simultaneously.
It doesn’t stop there. Not only is gum disease a predictor of heart conditions, but treatment of gum disease can serve to minimize the consequences of heart disease and other chronic conditions like it. This is because the inflammation inherent in gum disease is thought to exacerbate already existing heart conditions. Therefore, managing dental health can be a good way to also manage heart disease complications.
Research has also suggested a link between gum disease and osteoporosis, respiratory disease and cancer. Osteoporosis is thought to exacerbate the bone loss that often results from periodontitis as it decreases bone density and accelerates the deterioration of structures supporting the teeth. Respiratory diseases are potentially, at times, caused by periodontitis. This is because the bacteria that grows in the oral cavity can be aspirated into the lungs and contribute to the development of diseases like pneumonia. Lastly, researchers have found that men with gum disease are 54 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, 49 percent more likely to develop kidney cancer, and 30 percent more likely to develop blood cancers.
Whatever the conclusive cause, it is undeniable that periodontal disease presents a large risk factor for other health conditions. This is why it is of utmost importance that you maintain good oral hygiene by brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing once a day, visiting your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings and looking out for the warning signs of gum disease, including: swollen/painful gums, bleeding, chronic bad breath, gum recession, painful chewing and loose teeth. We are the expert in periodontal disease and can be counted on to notice the warning signs of gum disease immediately. With our help, you can make sure that you detect any of the above-mentioned health concerns early and take appropriate action. Make sure that you’re staying on top of your oral and overall health by contacting us to schedule an appointment today!
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