What can your teeth and gums tell you about your overall health?

May 22, 2014 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
There is a strong link between oral health and general physical health.

A federal health survey revealed that 12 percent of adults in the U.S. ages 20 to 64 had not seen a dentist in the prior five years. For older adults, that rate jumped to 23 percent. This is problematic because, while it is true that a physician can help keep you healthy and monitor your overall well-being, by checking the mouth routinely, a dentist can catch some of the earliest signs of disease elsewhere in your body, and that information my help you prevent some of those diseases.

The link between oral health and general physical health is a two-way street. The health of your teeth and gums can affect your overall health or can indicate a health problem in another part of your body. That’s why good oral hygiene is even more important than you may think.

From the body to your mouth
There are several systemic diseases that cause problems in the mouth. For example, osteoporosis, which is a bone-degenerating disease, can lead to tooth loss. If this symptom is the first manifestation of osteoporosis, a dentist who spots it can investigate early and alert you to the potential problem so you can consult your doctor.

Certain chronic diseases can also cause oral symptoms. People who live with diabetes or oral cancer may develop lesions on their gums or other areas of the mouth. Because the mouth is home to scores of bacteria – most of which are benign – these lesions can open a door for them to affect the rest of the body.

From your mouth to the body
As long as your gums are healthy, bacteria in the mouth should not pose any problems. However, if you develop some types of gum disease, pathogens can enter your bloodstream through your weakened gums, circulate throughout the body and drive inflammation. If this inflammation occurs around the heart, it may lead to endocarditis, which affects the inner lining of the organ, or the accumulation of plaque in the blood vessels, which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Additionally, there are studies suggesting that gum infections increase the amount of inflammatory substances in the blood, which may negatively affect the brain and drive the development of dementia.

There is a strong body of research linking diabetes to gum disease, and the connection goes both ways. Because diabetes can weaken the immune system, people with this condition become more prone to gum disease, which, in turn, can cause blood sugar levels to spike.

Other research has also linked the bacteria in the mouth to cases of pneumonia, which may be more likely to occur in people with gum disease. For a pregnant women, gum disease can also put a developing fetus at risk for early delivery and low birth weight.

If you have concerns about both your oral and physical health, and you are not sure how to address your concerns, consult a personalized health advisor. Your advisor can identify your unique set of needs and connect you to professionals with appropriate resources.