Oral Health and the Body

An emerging field of study is the relationship between the health of the mouth and the overall health of the body. Researchers have already linked poor oral health to several serious medical disorders, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain respiratory illnesses.

The mouth is teeming with bacteria, most of which are harmless. The body’s natural defenses and good oral hygiene – proper brushing and flossing – generally keep these bacteria under control.

But if people don’t practice good oral hygiene, plaque can build up along the gumline, creating an environment for more bacteria to accumulate between the teeth and gums. This can lead to a gum infection called gingivitis. Left untreated, gingivitis can progress to a more serious gum infection called periodontitis.

People with untreated periodontitis have up to a 20 percent increase in risk for heart disease. In addition, these people have increased risk for stroke, peripheral vascular disease and myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Advanced periodontal disease is also associated with increased risk for the development and progression of some cancers. Pancreatic cancer risk can go up 59 percent. Smoking related cancers can increase by 150 percent. Also, breast cancer has a greater chance of recurrence.

Medical and dental professional organizations agree on the connection between cardiovascular disease, clogged arteries and stroke with the inflammation and infection caused by bacteria from the mouth.

Reduction in symptoms and improvement in prognosis of arthritis may result from therapeutic treatment of periodontal disease.

Other conditions linked to periodontitis are premature birth and low birth weight. And certain bacteria from the mouth can enter the lungs and cause pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.

On the flip side, some health conditions affect the mouth and teeth. Diabetes reduces the body’s resistance to infection and puts the gums at risk. Gum disease tends to be more frequent and severe in people who have diabetes. And people who have gum disease have a more difficult time controlling their blood sugar levels. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis have increased risk of developing periodontal disease.

Oral problems, such as painful sores in the lining of the mouth, are common in people with HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis is linked to periodontal bone loss and tooth loss. In addition, certain medications to treat osteoporosis can damage the bones of the jaw. Further, worsening oral health can occur as Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

There are other conditions that might be linked to oral health. These include eating disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, certain cancers and an immune system disorder that causes dry mouth called Sjogren’s syndrome.

In many cases, the mouth serves as a vantage point for detecting early signs and symptoms of diseases elsewhere in the body. The Academy of General Dentistry reports that more than 90 percent of all diseases produce oral signs and symptoms. For example, the first signs of AIDS and diabetes are often sores in the mouth.

People can protect their overall health by practicing good oral health habits. These include:

  • Brushing at least twice a day with a soft-bristled brush and fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing daily and using a flushing device such as a Waterpik®
  • Using mouthwash to remove food particles left after brushing and flossing
  • Eating a healthy diet low in added sugar
  • Replacing their toothbrush every three months or whenever the bristles become splayed or worn
  • Seeing the dentist for routine checkups and cleanings
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