Dental Health

Overall Health and Oral Health

Overall Health and Oral Health Are Closely Connected

Your oral health can offer valuable clues about, and strongly affect, your overall health.

Like many areas of the body, your mouth is teeming with bacteria-most of it harmless, and normally kept under control by the body’s natural defenses. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections. In addition, certain medications can cause your mouth to be dry, which interferes with your ability to manage bacteria.

Researchers are studying the association between oral health, inflammation, and disease. Inflammation is the body’s response to infection, and it seems to play a key role in many health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and gum disease (also called periodontal disease). Through further study, we hope to better understand how these diseases are interrelated, and whether treating the inflammation caused by gum disease can improve other medical conditions. Good oral hygiene has benefits far beyond preventing tooth decay and gum disease.

Periodontal Disease and Heart Disease

People with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. An analysis published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that periodontal disease was a risk factor for heart disease (separate from other risk factors, such as smoking). Other studies have shown that having gum disease increases the risk for stroke. How does the inflammation in your mouth affect your heart and blood vessels? Every time you brush or floss, bacteria is released into the blood stream. According to one theory, bacteria in the bloodstream can end up in specific areas and add to clot formation. Another theory involves the body’s response to inflammation: When gums are inflamed, the body releases chemicals into the bloodstream that help fight infection. These chemicals may circulate in the blood and contributing to plaque buildup in the arteries. Many of these associations were discovered and studied in our dental school by Dr. Genco, Dr. Zambon, and Dr. Haraszthy.

Diabetes and Gum Disease

The connection between oral health and diabetes can be described as a two-way street. Diabetes has an impact on all areas of the body, including the oral cavity: Having diabetes increases the risk for infection and inflammation, including periodontal disease. At the same time, having periodontal disease increases the amount of inflammation your body is coping with. This makes it more difficult for diabetics to keep blood sugar under control.

Studies show that diabetics (especially those who do not manage their condition well) are more likely to develop periodontal disease. A review inEvidence-Based Dentistry found that diabetics who were treated for periodontal disease could more easily manage their diabetes. Most of these studies were completed in our dental school by Dr. Genco.

Periodontal Disease Affects Pregnant Women and Their Babies

Unfortunately, the hormonal changes that come with pregnancy make women more likely to develop gum disease, which in turn increases the possibility of preterm labor and low birthweight. A review in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare found that treating periodontal disease may lower the chance of those occurrences. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, have your oral health evaluated by a dentist for a checkup and preventative care.

Other Possible Oral Health Connections

Researchers continue to look into connections between periodontal disease and other pathologies. Although certain links aren’t as well established, there are some interesting areas for further study.

  • Oral health and lung disease: Research has found an association between gum disease and certain types of pneumonia, possibly from breathing in bacteria from the mouth. In fact, studies by University at Buffalo’s Dr. Scannapieco have found that improving oral health can decrease the risk for pneumonia in patients in nursing homes and hospitals. A study in Respiratory Medicine also found an association between peritonitis and COPD, which also share similar risk factors (such as smoking).
  • Oral health and osteoporosis: Periodontal disease causes bone loss. It is theorized that having both osteoporosis and periodontal disease may lead to more rapid bone loss than osteoporosis alone would cause. However, it has not yet been confirmed.
  • Gum disease and arthritis: A study published in the Journal of Periodontology found that those with rheumatoid arthritis were far more likely to have periodontal disease than those who did not. There is believed to be a connection between the two diseases because they are both inflammatory disorders, but scientists are still seeking to identify a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

Spending just a few minutes a day to maintain your oral hygiene is a great investment in both your current health and in your future. If the appeal of a bright smile and fresh breath is not enough, the multitude of connections between the health of your mouth and the rest of your body is even more motivation.