by Blake Herzog
Researchers are finding increased evidence that the ramifications of poor oral health spread far beyond our mouth, even if the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t always clear.
Gum disease in particular, primarily caused by bacteria that builds up on our teeth as plaque, may either contribute to or be a warning sign of disease elsewhere in the body.
Good oral health practices, including brushing teeth twice daily, flossing, using mouthwash and regular dental checkups, are the best methods for preventing gum disease.
In one rare but potentially deadly heart condition mostly found in patients with existing heart conditions, endocarditis, bacteria from the mouth and other parts of the body spreads to the heart and infects the lining of the heart valves by attaching to damaged areas of the organ.
Other research has found that those with gum disease or poor oral health are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Some experts suggest chronic inflammation caused by oral bacteria and infection may contribute to formation of plaque (different from dental plaque), in the arteries, which can lead to partial or complete blockages.
Many experts believe there’s a two-way relationship between diabetes and gum disease, with each having the ability to worsen or improve the other.
It’s well-established that diabetic patients face up to three times the average risk of periodontal problems, and some studies have found gum disease adversely affects the body’s glycemic control. Diabetes reduces production of saliva and raises its sugar content, both of which can foster bacteria growth and lead to infection.
An analysis of dental records and insurance claims published by the Journal of the American Dental Association in February found diabetes patients treated for periodontal disease saw their overall health costs go down 12%.
Increases in estrogen and progesterone are known to increase the risk of early gum disease, or gingivitis, during pregnancy, occurring in about 60% to 75% of cases.
In most cases the gums return to normal after giving birth, but without treatment gingivitis can progress to the more serious periodontitis, which has been linked to premature delivery and low birth weight for babies.
Gum disease and other markers of oral health tend to worsen as this disease progresses, and at least one study has reported the presence of bacteria that causes gum disease in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
Some scientists believe this type of infection could help trigger Alzheimer’s in those predisposed to develop it.
Long-term use of drugs that reduce saliva production can contribute to bacteria growth and gum disease, including decongestants, antihistamines, diuretics, painkillers and antidepressants.
Signs of gum disease
Early gum disease, known as gingivitis, progresses to the more serious periodontitis when left untreated. Symptoms of gum disease include bad breath or taste that won’t go away, red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums, pain while chewing, and loose or sensitive teeth or gums pulling away from teeth.