When you think of your mouth, pleasurable things like kissing and eating probably come to mind. But your mouth has a lot to say about your overall health, too.
Poor oral health can make your body vulnerable to a number of diseases. And very often, your mouth will give you hints that your overall health may be at risk. In fact, dentists are often the first healthcare professionals to spot the signs of serious conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, oral cancer, or osteoporosis.
“All medical experts would agree that systemic inflammation puts you at higher risk for heart attack, stroke, and insulin resistance that leads to diabetes,” explains Dr. Chris Kammer, a dentist in Madison, Wisconsin and a founding member of The American Academy for Oral Systemic Health.
“Well, the most common inflammatory disease of the body is gum disease,” he says. Gum disease can put you at a greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, and more.
“The oral pathogens cause an inflammatory component to flow in the bloodstream, causing circulatory inflammation which contributes to systemic diseases.”
Gum disease may increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, according to one study. The relationship between these diseases isn’t fully understood. One hypothesis is that the bacteria and other pathogens found in dental plaque — the slimy film that coats your teeth and mouth — get into your blood. They then make their way to the arteries and add to artery-clogging plaque.
Dr. Kammer says that he usually finds these bad periodontal pathogens in the fatty plaque buildup in the carotid artery, via ultrasound. They are known to increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Gum disease is found more frequently in people who have cardiovascular disease. However, further research is required to learn more about the interaction between the two diseases.
There’s a strong indication that there is a connection between cancer and gum disease, but more research is needed to fully understand the relationship. A large study funded by the National Cancer Institute found that gum disease can increase your risk of getting cancer. Researchers followed nearly 50,000 men for 17 years, and found that men who had gum disease had a greater likelihood of developing certain types of cancer than men who didn’t:
- Prostate cancer: 14 percent higher risk
- Blood cancer, such as leukemia or bone marrow cancer: 30 percent higher risk
- Lung cancer: 36 percent higher risk
- Kidney cancer: 54 percent higher risk
Periodontal disease and diabetes are dueling diseases. People with diabetes are at higher risk for gum disease, likely because having higher than normal blood glucose levels increases the amount of glucose in the saliva. This creates an environment where more bacteria can grow.
It’s speculated that people who have diabetes are more susceptible to infections that start in the mouth. Since infections can increase blood sugar levels, having periodontal disease can make it more difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar levels. A 2010 study found that periodontal treatment can lead to improved blood sugar control for people with type 2 diabetes.
The complexities of systemic inflammation and chronic disease make it challenging to prove, beyond a doubt, that gum disease plays a major role in your overall health.
However, the evidence continues to mount. One study found that having your gum disease treated can reduce your treatment costs significantly. People with type 2 diabetes or coronary artery disease, for example, could reduce costs by about 41 percent.
We all tire of the brush and floss mantra. But these simple acts, combined with good overall oral health care and a healthy diet, can have a larger impact on your well-being than you probably thought possible.