Last week, I took an unwanted visit to the dentist to get several fillings along my gum line. Lying down with those funny glasses on, it was hard to know exactly what was in my mouth, but it felt like a lot—plastic props and pieces of gauze, as well as sharp metal tools and several fingers. Despite my inability to speak, the hygienist decided it was a good time to ask me some questions about my oral health routine. “Are you flossing back here?” she asked, touching the sensitive spot that was the reason for my appointment. I held up my hand and made a “sort of” gesture. “You’re not scrubbing, right?” she asked, pantomiming a hard, back and forth motion of an invisible brush. I furrowed my brow and nodded no.
If you’re like me, the little things we’re supposed to do for our bodies—like flossing—can sometimes get overlooked. Yet, neglecting our mouths doesn’t just mean more trips to the dentist. Aesthetics aside (my forty-two-year-old teeth are far from perfect), the chronic inflammation and infection in our mouths might be contributing to more systemic diseases.
Chronic Diseases, Tied to Our Teeth
Our mouths are home to millions of microorganisms and while most of them are harmless, some cause tooth decay and oral infections. As most of us know, this can translate to cavities—followed by the nasty sound of the dentist’s drill. But it can also lead to more serious health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gum disease, or periodontitis, is the second most common oral disease worldwide, after tooth decay. As many as half of all Americans suffer from it, though only about 5 to 10 percent have severe forms. Because periodontal disease causes chronic inflammation, it is thought to play a role in other inflammatory and chronic diseases.
One of the best reasons to take care of your mouth is that people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. Researchers aren’t sure why, though they have several theories. One is that oral bacteria can enter the blood stream, attaching to fatty plaques in the heart’s blood vessels, eventually causing clot formation. Another is that inflammation in the gums contributes to swelling in the arteries. There also appears to be a higher rate of gum disease among stroke victims.
Researchers continue to study the relationship between low birth weight, early pregnancies (those occurring between thirty-seven weeks—about 12 percent of all births in the United States), and periodontal disease. A growing body of evidence suggests a link. In a review of studies published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, the researchers concluded that oral bacteria and periodontal infection in a mother’s mouth can lead to fetal exposure; this in turn causes a fetal inflammatory response which can lead to preterm delivery. Studies also show that when pregnant women with existing gum disease are aggressively treated, their instance of pre-term and low-weight births are significantly lowered.
Periodontal disease is often referred to as “the sixth complication of diabetes” because the rate is so high in diabetics, especially those with poorly controlled diabetes. It’s a two-way street: diabetics are more prone to infection and periodontal disease makes it more difficult for them to control their blood sugar.
The bone loss disease that is especially common in post-menopausal women, osteoporosis also has connections to oral hygiene. The loss of bone mass in the lower jaw can lead to the loss of teeth. The risk is even higher among women with gum infection, making brushing and flossing as crucial in the second half of our lives as it was in the first.
Taking good care of your teeth and gums through brushing, flossing, and regular dental checkups will go along way toward preventing some of these complications. But there are other risk factors involved as well. To get a clearer sense of your oral health, take the American Academy of Periodontology’s quick quiz. And if you’re still too tired to floss, try playing a tape of a dental drill. It might just scare you out of complacency!