Oral health is the window to general health. How you take care of your oral health determines how healthy your entire body is. Numerous studies conducted in favor of the importance of oral health dictate that there is a well-established link between your oral health and your systemic health. In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) affirms that about 90% of all systemic conditions manifest symptoms in the mouth in the form of oral disease.
Despite these explicit sets of evidence, the American Dental Association (ADA) sourced a survey that revealed that more than one in five (21.3%) individuals in the U.S. have not visited the dentist in the last few years. This is alarming for a number of reasons, the most pertinent being the severity or potential general disability an oral disease can cause for you.
How can oral health affect general health?
The oral cavity is a focal point of contact with the body and a port of entry from the external environment. Our mouths house a complex network of bacteria, much like the gut. A normal, undiseased oral cavity is colonized at one time by a unique population of at least 500-700 species of microorganisms that are virulent but dormant. The level of oral microbiome fluctuates with one’s level of oral hygiene. While a person with good oral hygiene tends to have a simple flora, a person with poor oral health presents with an oral cavity clad in deteriorative “harmful” bacteria that compromise the health of the mouth, and ultimately of the entire body.
Gum disease is primarily caused by the uncontrolled accumulation of a biofilm of plaque over time onto the teeth surfaces and beneath the gum margin. The overwhelming change in the oral environment triggers the body’s immune system that not only destroys the bacteria but also damages the oral tissues in the process. The bacteria and inflammation essentially ‘eat away’ at your gums and teeth and invites recurrent opportunistic infections like thrush, dental decay, inflamed tongue, etc. Bacteria from the mouth do not normally enter the bloodstream, however, due to invasive dental treatments or irreversible dental infections, they can invade the bloodstream and dispense systemic complications, especially if you already have a weakened immune system, i.e in cases of diabetes, heart disease, etc. Harvard Medical School backs this theory by claiming that gum disease has indeed been linked with increased risks of diabetes and heart disease.
Systemic conditions related to oral health
- Heart disease: A 2004 Belgian study indicated that there is a strong correlation between gum disease and the heart, with 91% of patients diagnosed with cardiovascular problems also suffering from gum disease. Oral disease has been linked to the following heart diseases:
- Heart attack: When you have gum disease, the bacteria can get into the bloodstream and produce a protein that causes blood to thicken. This means that clots are more likely to form and the heart arrests because it is not getting enough oxygen and nutrients, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
- Stroke: Inflammation of the gums can also cause inflammation of the blood vessels, blocking the blood supply to the brain, leading to a potential stroke.
- Endocarditis: Bacteria from the gum disease can spread through the bloodstream to the heart and cause infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers and valves (endocardium).
The American Heart Association states that gum disease increases the risk of heart disease by nearly 50%, according to a study published in the American Heart Association journal ‘Circulation’.
As of 2018, almost 34.2 million (10.5%) Americans have diabetes. The American Academy of Periodontology states that although gum disease has shown to complicate diabetes, gum disease and diabetes may have a two-way relationship. Gum infection impairs the body’s ability to utilize insulin and may even cause insulin resistance, which disrupts blood sugar control. This lowers the body’s immunity and induces complications for diabetes. High blood sugar due to diabetes can, counterintuitively, provide ideal conditions for gum infection to proliferate, thus worsening oral health. Fortunately, you can manage one to bring the other under control.
- Pregnancy-related complications:
Severe gum disease may increase the risk of preterm labor and giving birth to low birthweight babies. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that as many as 18% of preterm and low birth weight babies born in the U.S. each year may be attributed to oral infections. The toxic byproducts released by the bacteria in oral infections travel to the placenta via the mother’s bloodstream and compromise the healthy growth and development of the baby. Pregnant women with healthy gums maybe around three times less likely to have a premature delivery.
- Other conditions:
A weakened immune system due to poor oral health may also exacerbate the incidence of kidney disease and cancer. A study conducted by Case Western Reserve University in the U.S. found people with gum disease and missing teeth to be more likely to have chronic kidney disease than people who have good oral health. Those who have healthy gums are also 70% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Keys to good oral health
You should see your dentist if you experience pain, bleeding or swollen gums, ulcers that don’t heal, or any other signs of oral disease. These could all be indications of a potentially serious condition. Take these essential precautions to minimize oral trauma:
- Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride-enriched toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush.
- Floss at least once a day with a thread or water flosser.
- Minimize your intake of sugary, starchy, or sticky foods.
- Drink water that contains fluoride.
- Avoid smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or recreational drugs.
- Wear a mouthguard when playing contact sports.
- Use a mouthwash with the ADA Seal of Acceptance whenever possible.
- Visit your dentist as regularly as possible for a full-mouth exam.
Good oral health is an asset that not only allows you to embrace your healthy, beautiful smile but also induces a bidirectional impact on your general status of wellbeing. Oral health and general health are interconnected, so it vital that you begin overcoming your barriers that limit your preventative dental care by visiting the dentist regularly and incorporating good at-home oral hygiene.