We've all heard the advice from dentists everywhere. Regular brushing and flossing are critical to maintaining the health of your teeth. Good oral hygiene and regular cleaning can help prevent all sorts of nasty symptoms, like bad breath, gum disease, and tooth decay. It can also help you keep your teeth as you age. But did you know that oral health is actually connected to your overall health?
New science and research into oral health have provided some surprising insights. Good oral hygiene can help maintain your overall health in ways we are only now beginning to understand. On the flip side, poor oral health is linked to numerous diseases of the body, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even dementia.
Why Oral Hygiene is Important
Oral hygiene—regular brushing, flossing, and dental cleanings—is vital to the health of your teeth, gums, and mouth. And just like a car, a swimming pool, or a garden, maintenance is crucial. Like most of your body, your mouth is teeming with over 500 types of bacteria. Most of those bacteria are harmless, and some are even helpful. But poor oral hygiene habits can create conditions that allow harmful bacteria to flourish.
One way that your mouth naturally controls bacteria and their excretions (yes, bacteria excrete in your mouth) is with saliva. Saliva can help maintain the pH balance of your oral cavity. Saliva also carries antibodies that help protect you against a wide variety of viruses and bacteria. In addition to antibodies, saliva carries proteins that control Candida albicans, a fungus that can cause oral thrush if it grows out of control. Enzymes in saliva control bacteria by breaking down cell walls and attacking some harmful bacteria. Medications and some diseases can reduce saliva production, putting you at risk for oral infections.
Plaque is More Important Than You Thought
Even with the presence of saliva, the bacteria in your mouth are constantly producing plaque. Plaque is a sticky, colorless film that builds up on your teeth. If left unchecked, an accumulation of plaque can become an ideal environment for bacteria growth, putting your health at risk. Plaque builds up all over your teeth, but gentle brushing is all it takes to remove it. However, it can be harder to remove plaque from the gum line and even underneath the gums.
When plaque builds up, especially under your gums, bacteria can flourish. That's why brushing around the gumline and flossing are so important. Bacteria that build up in the space between your teeth and your gums cause an infection known as gingivitis. If you don't take care of gingivitis, and the infection becomes more severe, it can lead to periodontitis. With periodontitis, the gums start to pull away from the teeth and form a pocket that fills with puss and germs. If it becomes severe, it can even require oral surgery to correct. Periodontitis that isn't treated can ultimately lead to acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis, also known as trench mouth, which is a serious health concern. The infection begins to eat away at the bone around your teeth. At that point, teeth may start to fall out or may need to be pulled.
When there is any kind of infection of the gums, the gums become tender and prone to bleed even with routine brushing and flossing. That opens up a pathway for bacteria from your mouth, including the bacteria causing the infection, to enter your bloodstream. That's where the real damage begins.
Diabetes and Gum Disease
One complication of diabetes is increased susceptibility to all types of infections. This includes gingivitis and periodontitis. So individuals with diabetes should take extra care to ensure that their teeth stay clean, healthy, and plaque-free.
What scientists are only now beginning to understand is how poor oral health can be more than a symptom of diabetes—it can also make it worse. New and emerging research indicates a connection between oral health and the progression of diabetes. Specifically, it seems that oral infections like gingivitis and periodontitis can make it harder to regulate blood sugar levels. Uncontrolled fluctuations in blood glucose levels can, in turn, speed up the progression of diabetes.
Oral Health and Cardiovascular Disease
The research around oral health and cardiovascular disease is new, exciting, and ongoing. What we know so far is that people with moderate to severe gum disease seems to be more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those with good oral health. So far, the link is just that, a link, and not necessarily a causal link. While studies to indicate a connection, there are a few possibilities as to why people with poor gum health are more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
- It may be that bacteria are traveling from the mouth into the bloodstream, where they cause inflammation and damage blood vessels. This can lead to clotting, strokes, and heart attacks. Studies have found traces of oral bacteria in blood vessels far from the mouth, supporting this claim. However, antibiotics do little to reduce cardiovascular disease, which throws this theory into question.
- It may not be the bacteria, but rather the immune response. The immune response itself can cause inflammation of blood vessels, which, in turn, leads to heart attack and stroke.
- As with any link, there may be a third factor that is actually contributing to both conditions. Poor oral health and cardiovascular disease may have a common cause, such as smoke or overall poor healthcare. Some studies seem to show that when you control for smoking—a common contributor to both poor oral health and cardiovascular disease—the link disappears. But other studies that control for smoking and other factors do show a link. The truth, as of now, is that we don't have enough information to make a final diagnosis, and more study is needed.
Dementia and Oral Health
Dementia is a growing concern among the rapidly aging US population. As Baby Boomers head into their senior years, Alzheimer's and dementia are becoming more and more common. Geriatricians and researchers have been looking for causes and cures for decades, and some intriguing studies have landed on oral health as one factor. It seems as though there is at least a statistically significant link between poor oral health and dementia.
Some studies looked at memory loss and cognitive ability in adults with and without gingivitis. Those with gingivitis were more likely to perform poorly on tests of memory and subtraction.
Another study in the UK found that the brains of patients with Alzheimer's showed the presence of gum bacteria. While it was unclear of the exact link, the results indicate a direction for further research.
The Moral: Healthy Teeth Are Vital to a Healthy Body
Clearly, there is a lot of evidence indicating a link between oral health and overall health. This is an emerging field of research with many promising leads and plenty more that needs to be studied. But what we know for sure is that oral health is vital to a healthy body. This includes regular brushing and flossing, plus visits to the dentist for cleanings and any needed treatments.
Going to the dentist is a great way to protect your health, and it can also save you money. Keeping your teeth clean and healthy with regular visits can prevent more severe problems. A little money spent on cleaning visits can keep you from spending thousands on complicated procedures and oral surgery. Try these top-notch TrustDALE certified dentists in your area to keep your teeth clean and healthy.