Even health-conscious people may be surprised to learn that gum disease is the most common disease of all in adults, affecting an estimated 80% of Americans over the age of 35. As researchers investigate the causes and effects of gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis, they are uncovering startling links between poor oral health and many chronic diseases that afflict aging adults. Mounting research studies indicate that poor oral health frequently accompanies or contributes to a wide array of systemic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and arthritis.
Maintaining optimal oral health not only will give you a brighter, healthier smile, but also may help you fend off many potentially deadly diseases. By safeguarding the health of your teeth and gums through healthy diet and lifestyle, proper brushing and flossing, and targeted nutritional strategies, you increase your odds of living a long and healthy life.
Poor Gums, Poor Health
According to a recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers have uncovered potential links between periodontal disease and many serious health conditions. The reason, according to many medical experts, is that the bacteria that contribute to gingivitis and periodontitis provoke inflammation or infection, which can trigger certain diseases. Periodontal disease may even aggravate or worsen existing health conditions. This article discusses the most common ailments associated with gum disease, along with novel approaches to optimize your oral health.
Heart disease. Researchers have discovered that people with periodontal disease are much more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease than those without the disease. A 2004 study in the Journal of Periodontology found that 91% of 108 patients with cardiovascular disease suffered from moderate to severe periodontitis, compared to 66% of the non-cardiac patients.7
Scientists have advanced several theories to explain the link between periodontal disease and heart disease. One theory holds that inflammation caused by periodontal disease leads to impaired functioning of the vascular endothelium, which contributes to arterial disease.8 Still another hypothesis is based on several studies showing that periodontal infections can be correlated with increased levels of inflammatory mediators, such as fibrinogen, C-reactive protein, or cytokines, which have been correlated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.9,10
In a pilot study reported in early 2006, investigators found that treating moderate to severe periodontal disease in 22 otherwise healthy adults led to significant improvements in endothelial function, as well as decreases in interleukin-6, an inflammatory cytokine. Periodontal treatment was also associated with reductions in C-reactive protein.8 Although more studies are needed, these findings suggest that treating periodontal disease not only boosts oral hygiene, but also improves several measures of cardiovascular health.
Stroke. The presence of gum disease also may increase risk of stroke. Previous research found that the severity of gum disease is proportionally related to the amount of arterial plaque located in the carotid arteries, the two major arteries on each side of the neck that supply blood to the brain. Blockage here may reduce blood flow to the brain or advance blood clots, which can lead to a stroke. A 2005 study from the University of Minnesota found a direct link between high levels of bacteria that cause gum disease and thickness of the carotid arteries. This research stands out as the first to link atherosclerosis with the type of bacteria that causes gum disease, and not with other oral bacteria.11
Diabetes. Diabetes is associated with increased risk of infection, which may include oral infections such as periodontitis. Researchers have noted that periodontal disease is a common complication of diabetes.12 In fact, people with type I or type II diabetes are more susceptible to severe, progressive periodontal disease than non-diabetic individuals.13,14
Studies suggest that periodontal disease may adversely affect blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Controlling periodontal infection in diabetic individuals has been found to help improve blood sugar control, as measured by a decreased demand for insulin and decreased levels of hemoglobin A1C, a marker of long-term blood sugar control.12
Measures to combat complications of diabetes, especially periodontitis and gingivitis, may be important in reducing additional systemic inflammatory burden, thus potentially preventing other conditions such as cardiovascular disease.12
Premature and low-weight births. New findings indicate that gum disease can affect the health of pregnant women and their unborn children. A University of Chile study found that women with gingivitis were at higher risk of delivering premature infants and low-weight babies than women with healthier gums. The likely reason is that periodontitis or gingivitis bacteria contribute to an inflammatory response of the placental membrane, which may induce preterm labor. Periodontal treatment reduced the risk of premature and low-weight births in women with pregnancy-related gum disease.15
Other conditions. Gum disease may also contribute to other physical problems. For instance, some evidence suggests that periodontal disease may contribute to lung infections like pneumonia, or may worsen chronic conditions such as emphysema.16 Experts believe this may be due to oral bacteria that move into the airways of the throat and lungs. Poor oral health may also accompany poor joint health. People with moderate to severe periodontitis experience an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis.17 Gum disease is also present in many patients who suffer from juvenile idiopathic arthritis.18