Your mouth is, in many ways, the “gateway” to the rest of the body. However, this connection is often overlooked. In the U.S., the fields of dentistry and medicine have traditionally been worlds apart. But, in light of the growing evidence pointing to links between oral and whole body health, this separation of disciplines is slowly beginning to break down. The notion that dentists care for only gums and teeth, while doctors look after everything else is being rethought.
And, as doctors and dentists now suspect, gum disease is no little thing. Research compiled over the past five years suggests that gum disease, especially if the condition has persisted for a long time without treatment, can contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke, pregnancy complications, and perhaps even Alzheimers disease, osteoporosis and some types of cancers.
Early stage periodontal disease (gingivitis) is seldom painful and causes relatively minor signs, such as red, swollen and bleeding gums. But, untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a serious infection that destroys the soft tissue and bone that supports your teeth, and eventually may cause tooth loss.
Infections in the mouth also may increase the risk to people undergoing several types of surgery, including transplantation and cardiac valve replacement.
“For years the mouth was never considered a part of the body,” says Dr. Salomon Amar, a periodontist at Boston University. “Gum disease was not considered something that could have any impact.”
But, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that treating severe gum disease can improve the function of blood vessel walls, improving heart health.
And, in Journal of Periodontology, two studies found periodontal bacteria (bugs normally found in inflamed gums) that can travel through your blood stream to the arteries in your heart where they trigger a cycle of inflammation and arterial narrowing that contributes to heart attacks. Oral bacteria also make you more prone to develop blood clots, increasing the likelihood of a stroke.
Other than bleeding, gum disease has few symptoms and rarely causes much discomfort. The gums do not hurt until it is too late. Well before the gums or teeth start to hurt, the dual forces of infection and inflammation in the mouth appear to hitch a ride in the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body, wreaking havoc once there.
New evidence is mounting that suggests periodontal disease is a risk factor for pregnant women. Pregnant women who have periodontal disease may be seven times more likely to have a baby that is born too early and too small. It appears that periodontal disease triggers increased levels of biological fluids that induce labor. Furthermore, data suggests that women whose periodontal condition worsens during pregnancy have an even higher risk of having a premature baby.
Research has emerged that suggests that the relationship between periodontal disease and diabetes goes both ways. Periodontal disease may make it more difficult for people who have diabetes to control their blood sugar. Severe periodontal disease can increase blood sugar, contributing to increased periods of time when the body functions with high blood sugar. This puts diabetics at increased risk for diabetic complications. Thus, diabetics who have periodontal disease should be treated to eliminate the periodontal infection.
Please call your dentist for a periodontal evaluation.