Dentists aren't just interested in keeping your teeth clean and white—they want to keep gum disease from messing with the rest of your body, too.
Photo: John Lamb / Getty Images
Here's something to chew on: The health of your mouth, teeth, and gums can tell a story about your overall health.
In fact, gum disease is associated with various, often serious, health problems, and it's more common than you think. About *half* of the adult population in the U.S. has some form of gum disease, says Michael J. Kowalczyk, D.D.S., a dentist in Hinsdale, IL. Symptoms include a foul taste in your mouth and red, sore, or puffy gums that bleed easily when you brush or floss, says Kowalczyk.
Your best bet to keep your pearly whites healthy? Brush twice a day for at least two minutes, floss at least once a day, and schedule cleanings with your dentist twice a year—so every six months, he says. Doing so will help decrease your risk of these five health issues.
General Heart Health
Having periodontal (gum) disease puts you at risk for coronary heart disease, according to research published in the American Heart Journal.
Gum disease causes your gums to become chronically infected, creating bacteria and inflammation that can spread to other areas—particularly the heart, says Kowalczyk. In fact, several types of bacteria that cause gum disease have also been found in the plaque that accumulates in the heart, according to findings from a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"Bacteria from the mouth travels through the bloodstream and reaches the heart, and can attach to any damaged area and cause inflammation," he explains. Essentially, the inflammation of the gums (bacteria) causes inflammation in the heart (plaque), and over time this buildup puts you at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
What's more, "as the inflammation spreads, infection sets in, resulting in gingivitis, which can lead to periodontitis and bone loss," says Larry Williams, D.D.S., of the Academy of General Dentistry and Midwestern University.
One study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care found that people with gum disease were 23 percent more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those without the disease. It's important to note that correlation is not causation (i.e., gum disease doesn't cause diabetes), but it's rather a domino effect that occurs in the body. Follow this: Gum disease releases inflammatory proteins, which can irritate blood vessels and induce plaque buildup (as you've learned above), and can contribute to high blood sugar and, in turn, diabetes, explains Williams. "Simply stated: Poor oral health leads to poor blood sugar control and greater problems with diabetes, and diabetics with good oral health have better control of their blood sugar," he adds.
In some extreme cases, plaque buildup in the heart can contribute to problems in the brain, says one 2015 study published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences—and perhaps even increase your risk for Alzheimer's disease. Researchers say this is because gum disease releases inflammatory proteins, as well as C-reactive protein (a substance produced by the liver that can act as a marker for disease and inflammation in the body), both of which can make their way into the brain. Still, more research still needs to be done beyond this study to establish if a clearer association exists.
This points to poor oral and possibly overall health, says Williams, adding "if you are not taking care of yourself, the body and mind have a greater chance of decline."
Gum disease has been linked to pregnancy complications such as an increased risk for pre-term birth, restricted fetal growth, and low birthweight, says Williams. But breathe easy, because there's much more to the equation than just remembering to floss. "A pregnant woman needs to take care of herself and follow good medical advice (no smoking, recommended folate intake, good diet, exercise) and oral health advice (visits to address any areas of oral inflammation or disease)," he says.
The theory is that bacteria can travel from your gums to your uterus and trigger an increase in prostaglandin, a labor-inducing hormone, which can interfere with delivery and fetal development. What's more, it's also thought that pregnant women are at risk for noncancerous "pregnancy tumors" on their gums due to excess plaque, he adds. Adhering to the dental health recommendations (brushing twice) will prevent this buildup. And if you can't remember the last time you flossed or went to the dentist, you're setting yourself up for problems. Don't be alarmed; these growths usually shrink back post-birth, and with the right dental routine, you can avoid plaque growth in the first place.
Women with gum disease are 14 percent more likely to develop oral cancer, says one study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. "This points to the association between poor oral health and systemic disease," says Williams. Note: This study was done solely on postmenopausal women, and while it holds promise for future findings on the impact of gum disease and oral cancer, more research still needs to be done. "Cancer has been linked to unhealthy lifestyles, which includes having poor oral health—especially for people who smoke and/or drink alcohol," he says. This is especially true regarding esophageal cancer, but there's also a link between poor oral health and lung, gallbladder, breast, and skin cancer.