Sticky bacterial plaque that builds up on your teeth and inflamed, bleeding gums do more than just threaten your dental health.
A growing body of research finds that bacteria and inflammation in your mouth are also linked to other problems, including heart attack and dementia, and may well jeopardize your overall health.
Scientists have identified several links between poor oral health and other health problems — although they can’t yet establish cause and effect. This list of health problems has been growing as research continues.
Plaque and Its Effects on Your Dental Health
Plaque constantly forms on your teeth. When you eat or drink foods or beverages with sugars or starches, the bacteria release acids that attack your tooth enamel.
The plaque is so sticky that it keeps the acids in contact with your teeth, in time breaking down the enamel and leading to tooth decay.
Plaque buildup can also lead to gum disease — first gingivitis, the tender and swollen gums that sometimes bleed. If it progresses, severe periodontal (gum) disease can develop. Gum tissue pulls away from the teeth, allowing the bacteria to destroy the underlying bone supporting the teeth.
Periodontal and Other Diseases
To date, scientists have found links between periodontal disease and a number of other problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Premature birth
What’s behind the links? Experts can’t say for certain, but they believe that oral bacteria can escape into the bloodstream and injure major organs.
Inflammation is probably a common denominator, experts say. Periodontal disease, marked by inflammation, may increase inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation, in turn, is an underlying problem in diseases including heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Gum Disease and Heart Disease
Over the years, many studies have found that people with gum disease are more likely to also have poor heart health, including heart attacks.
A 2009 paper on the relationship between heart disease and gum disease was issued by the American Academy of Periodontology and The American Journal of Cardiology. Its joint recommendations encourage cardiologists to ask their patients about any gum disease problems. In addition, periodontists are encouraged to ask their patients about any family history of heart disease as well as their own heart health.
Gum Disease and Diabetes
If you have diabetes, you are more likely than people who don’t have diabetes to have gum disease. Why? Again, inflammation may be partly to blame. And, those with diabetes are more likely to contract infections, including gum disease.
If your diabetes is not under control, you are at even higher risk of gum disease.
Gum Disease and Dementia
Gum disease has also been found to raise the risk of dementia later in life.
Other researchers have found that periodontal problems may also be associated with milder cognitive impairment, such as memory problems that make activities of daily life more difficult. In a recent study, participants who had the worst gum disease scored the worst on memory tests and calculations.
Periodontal Disease and RA
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease marked by inflammation and painful joints. People with RA are more likely to have periodontal disease, and one study found that they had more missing teeth than people who don’t have RA.
Chronic inflammation is common to both conditions. Although scientists haven’t found evidence that one condition causes the other, a 2009 study found that people with a severe form of RA had less pain, swelling, and morning stiffness after their periodontal disease was treated.
Gum Disease and Premature Birth
Studies on the link between periodontal disease and preterm birth have produced conflicting results. Some show that women with gum disease are more likely to deliver a baby before term, which sets up the baby for health risks. Others, though, have not found a link. Studies are ongoing.
Other research has found that treating periodontal disease in pregnant women helps them carry their infants to term. One recent study showed that women with periodontal disease who completed periodontal treatment before the 35th week were less likely than those who did not get treatment to deliver their babies early.
Minimizing the Dangers of Plaque & Gingivitis
To keep plaque under control, brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and floss daily. Use an antimicrobial mouthwash to reduce the bacteria in your mouth.
Get your teeth cleaned professionally on a regular basis. Ask your dentist about the best cleaning schedule for you. Find out if you might benefit from a protective coating or sealant applied to the chewing surfaces of the teeth in the back of your mouth where tooth decay often begins.