When you put your toothbrush to your mouth, you may be thinking about freshening your breath, working toward a gleaming smile or preventing cavities. Pearly whites and healthy teeth and gums are their own rewards, of course. But taking good care of your mouth can help keep your entire body healthy, too. That’s right: Your heart, lungs and more can benefit from those two important minutes you spend over the bathroom sink, morning and night.
Most adults have signs of mild gum disease (gingivitis), such as simple gum inflammation that can lead to pink, swollen or bleeding gums. Daily flossing and brushing, and regular cleanings by your dentist or dental hygienist, can easily reverse this. When those steps aren’t taken, however, a more serious form of gum disease called periodontitis can set in. The inflamed gums pull away from the tooth and form pockets that can become infected. Toxins created by bacteria, as well as the body’s immune response to the inflammation, can break down the bone and connective tissue that holds teeth in place, causing tooth loss.
What’s worse, bacteria in your mouth—from periodontitis or even an untreated cavity—can travel to other parts of your body, causing what is sometimes serious infection elsewhere. Your body’s response to the infection in your mouth can create a chronic state of inflammation, which may increase the risk of certain illnesses. The relationship can go the other way, too: If you have certain medical conditions, they can make gum disease worse. Often, treating the gum disease helps you control the chronic condition.
Health Starts In Your Mouth
In the early 1900s, dentists had a theory: the “focal infection” theory. It held that untreated dental infection was the root cause of many systemic ailments. In many ways, new science has proven the idea correct. Consider:
- Heart Disease: Sometimes, the infectious bacteria in a mouth with gum disease can travel through the bloodstream and cause an infection in the lining of the heart, a condition called endocarditis. But a more common concern is that untreated gum disease can lead to body-wide inflammation that increases the risk of heart disease. People with periodontitis are indeed more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. On the positive side, when people with gum disease are treated, their risk of heart disease is lowered. “The connection between heart health and dental health is no longer subtle,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., a doctor at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.
- Type 2 Diabetes: Dentists have long known that diabetes can lead to oral health problems, including gum disease. But there is evidence that the relationship goes the other way, too: Periodontitis can make it harder to regulate blood sugar, which may increase the risk of developing diabetes. One thing that’s well known is that when people who have diabetes and gum disease get good dental care, their ability to control their diabetes improves greatly.
- Cancer: Women whose gum disease is so serious that they have lost a molar are at greater risk of getting breast cancer. They may also be at an increased risk for developing cancers of the kidney, pancreas and blood. The cause isn’t well understood, but chronic inflammation is suspected.
- Bones: Gum disease hasn’t been shown to contribute to osteoporosis. But if you do have the brittle bone disease, it can make gum disease worse, weakening the bones that hold teeth in place. If you have osteoporosis, or are at high risk for developing it, it’s particularly important to make sure your gums are healthy.
- Lungs: Untreated bacteria in your mouth can travel into the lungs, causing respiratory infections such as pneumonia. This is most commonly a problem in older people who are particularly susceptible to respiratory infections.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: People with periodontal disease are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. The likely culprit, again, is chronic inflammation beginning in the mouth. Some experts believing treating gum disease may help prevent future cases of Alzheimer’s.
- Pregnancy Outcomes: Pregnant women who have periodontitis are nearly three times more likely to deliver their babies prematurely. There’s also an increased risk of preeclampsia, a form of hypertension that poses risks for mother and baby. It’s not clear if gum disease treatment actually lowers these risks—studies are inconclusive—but if you are pregnant or planning to have a baby, there are only possible benefits to taking very good care of your mouth.
Treating Your Mouth Right
A well-cared-for mouth can help keep your entire body healthy. Start with these preventive essentials:
- See your dentist. Regular cleanings can help prevent gum disease, and if your dentist sees signs of it, he or she can get you started on a treatment program right away.
- Eat a healthy diet and steer clear of too many starchy or sugary snacks or drinks.
- Try your best to brush and floss after every meal.
- Drink fluoridated water and use toothpaste that contains fluoride.
- Don’t smoke. You know about the other dangers, but you may not realize that smokers are four times more likely to develop gum disease than non-smokers.