For years doctors have suspected a link between a person's oral and cardiovascular health. Now, there is evidence the connection might be greater than anyone ever imagined. A recent study showed those with gum disease had a much higher likelihood of also having a chronic condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. But even as doctors acknowledge the connection between the body and oral hygiene, there are still questions about how it affects the rest of your body and why the most basic habits — like brushing your teeth — can boost your overall health.
Your Mouth Could Be the Initial Battlefront For Disease
Every day you perform routine tasks to keep your mouth free and clear of bacteria. Brushing and flossing prevent buildup that can lead to gum infection. If you fall short on dental duty and an infection develops, your immune system attacks the infection, causing the gums to become inflamed, which can continue unless you get the infection under control. And having one infection, leaves you more open to getting sick in other ways.
Long-term inflammation can lead to damage to the gums and bone structure and cause problems throughout the body. As a matter of fact, there is growing evidence inflammation plays a role in just about every health problem we face.
Heart Disease and Diabetes
There is a strong link between heart disease and oral health. In part, this is because the two share several risk factors, including unhealthy eating, being overweight, and smoking. But there's also speculation that gum disease actually increases a person's risk for developing heart disease because it creates inflammation in the blood vessels. In addition to affecting the blood's ability to flow through the body, there is also an increased chance fatty plaque will break off and move to the brain, which can trigger a stroke or heart attack.
In addition to heart disease, there is also evidence that gum disease is linked to diabetes. Diabetes leads to abnormalities in blood vessels, as well as high levels of inflammatory chemicals such as interleukins, which significantly increase the risk for gum disease. High levels of triglycerides — common in type 2 diabetes — also affect periodontal health. And high blood sugar levels have been associated with severe periodontal disease in people without diabetes, according to one 2000 study. The relationship between gum disease and diabetes goes both ways, too. Having high blood sugar makes you more prone to diabetes because it creates an ideal environment for infections.
Weight plays a role in heart health and whether or not a person has diabetes, and two recent studies have linked gum disease and obesity. According to researchers, periodontitis tends to progress faster the higher a person's body fat is.
There's more: Your bone health is also likely linked to your dental health. Gum disease and osteoporosis both cause bone loss, according to recent research from the National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Researchers are also looking at the link between inflammation and bone health. Additionally, there are medical studies examining links between oral health and rheumatoid arthritis and lung diseases.
So what does all of this mean? According to doctors who have studied the link between oral health and overall health, it means you need to invest time and energy into caring for all parts of your body. It's just as important to exercise and eat right as it is to brush, floss, and see a dentist on a routine basis. It's also a good idea to share your overall health history with your dentist and your dental history with your general physician. This way your healthcare providers fully understand your risk factors.