The Critical Links Between Dental Health & Overall Health

The health of the mouth has been directly linked to the health of the rest of the body. The nature of this link isn't clear, but studies have shown that bacteria, infections, and disease in the mouth can negatively affect overall physical health. This shouldn't come as a surprise. What else can we expect when we figure the bacteria in our mouth is either getting absorbed into our bloodstream or ingested into the stomach whenever we swallow?

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Each part of the body is wonderfully interconnected and when one area falters, it compromises the health of another area. The spread of bacteria from the mouth to other parts of the body such as the bloodstream or the stomach underscore the importance of good dental hygiene. Reducing the bacteria in the mouth and keeping the teeth and gums healthy will go a long way in mitigating your risk for other health issues including heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, pregnancy complications, and pancreatic cancer. 

Let's take a look at some of the links between dental health and overall health… 

Dental Health & Diabetes

Diabetes affects the lives of approximately 29.1 million Americans, including adults and children, and approximately 90% of all diabetic cases worldwide involve Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes, in general, is a condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy.

Under normal conditions, food is turned into glucose, or sugar, for our bodies to use for energy. A hormone called insulin, produced by the pancreas, aids absorption of glucose into the cells of our bodies. When diabetes occurs, the body is not able to process glucose properly, either because insulin production is inadequate or because the body's cells do not respond properly to the insulin that is produced. Symptoms can include frequent urination, thirst and hunger even while eating, extreme fatigue, blurry vision, slow healing of cuts and bruises, weight loss, and tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands and feet.

Every year, 1.4 million people are diagnosed with diabetes, and as of 2010, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. The mortality rates associated with diabetes may be low as diabetes often is not reported on death certificates. According to the American Diabetes Association, only about 35% to 40% of people with diabetes who died had diabetes listed anywhere on the death certificate.

In recent years, researchers have discovered evidence that supports the connection between dental health and diabetes. "We found that people who had higher levels of periodontal disease had a twofold risk of developing type 2 diabetes over [20 years] compared to people with low levels or no gum disease," says Ryan Demmer, PhD, associate researcher at the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

It isn't clear yet whether or not gum disease actually leads to diabetes; however, there are a few theories for why this may be the case. One theory is that when infections in the mouth are bad enough, they can lead to low-grade inflammation throughout the body. This, in turn, compromises the body's ability to process sugars. "There are all kinds of inflammatory molecules, and it's believed that maybe some attach to insulin receptors and prevent the body's cells from using the insulin to get glucose into the cell," says Dr. Demmer.

While the evidence isn't conclusive yet, and it's likely that not every case of diabetes results from gum disease, there does seem to be a relationship between poor dental health and diabetes. This discover underscores the importance of practicing healthy oral hygiene practices.  

Dental Health & Heart Disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, and in 2009, more than half of the deaths caused by heart disease were in men. In the United States, about one in every four deaths results in heart disease each year, totaling to approximately 610,000 people; a person has a heart attack every 43 seconds; and one person dies from a heart disease-related event every minute.

Researchers have discovered a link between poor dental health and heart disease. The difficulty, however, in determining whether or not there is a direct causal relationship between them is that there are other potential risk factors, such as smoking and old age, that can lead both to gum disease and heart disease. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, diabetes, high weight and obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.

Does gum disease really lead to heart disease?

In 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funded a study of 1,056 randomly selected participants who had no prior heart attacks or strokes. The study evaluated their levels of periodontal bacteria. After the effects of other risk factors of age, gender, and smoking were removed, the researchers discovered there was a direct correlation between gum disease and heart disease. One theory that supports this relationship is that small amounts of bacteria enter the bloodstream while chewing. When harmful bacteria from an infected mouth lodges itself inside a blood vessel, it can ultimately lead to a dangerous blockage. The fact that researchers sometimes found fragments of periodontal bacteria when looking at atherosclerotic blood vessels further supports this theory.

In 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that supported the link between dental health and heart disease as well. It stated that the incidence of atherosclerosis is reduced within six months with aggressive treatment of gum disease.

By treating gum disease and removing harmful bacteria in the mouth, we can support our bodies in significant ways. 

Dental Health & Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and can be life-threatening, especially among the elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions. It is usually caused when bacteria, infections, or fungi infect the lungs.

A healthy body is normally able to filter most germs out of the air and prevent infections from reaching the lungs. It can even handle germs that do make it to the lungs or when an infection spreads from another part of the body. The human body is designed to fight infections, and as pneumonia spreads through the lungs, the white blood cells attack the germs, causing inflammation in the infected area. Inflammation is part of the body's normal response to infection, and in a healthy body, pneumonia is overcome. The infection in someone with a weak immune system, however, cannot be contained and must be treated.

When pneumonia spreads, the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs where oxygen passes into the blood, become infected and start to fill with fluid and pus. This results in a disruption of the normal gas exchange process in the lungs, stopping oxygen from reaching the bloodstream and causing a rise in blood levels of the waste gas carbon dioxide. Since the CO2 cannot be easily removed, this process results in shortness of breath. Oxygen levels can fall, and when the body's tissues, particularly those in the heart and brain, do not receive the oxygen they need, confusion, coma, heart failure and eventually death may result.

Although the research focuses on high-risk populations, such as the elderly, researchers have established a link between poor dental health and pneumonia. Knowing how pneumonia starts, it isn't hard to see how poor oral hygiene could lead to this potentially fatal illness.

In a 2008 study of elderly participants, researchers found that the number of participants who developed pneumonia was 3.9 times higher in participants with periodontal infection than in those without it. Bacteria in an unhealthy mouth can get aspirated into the lungs, causing infection, pneumonia, or aggravated chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

The CDC has cited several intervention studies that show a reduction in respiratory infections can occur when oral health is improved.

Dental Health & Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death because it typically spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages as signs and symptoms may not appear until the cancer is quite advanced. Treatment options for pancreatic cancer, unfortunately, are limited.

According to the American Cancer Society's 2016 estimates, 53,070 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and over 41,780 people will die from the disease. The National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program estimates that only 7.2% of Americans with pancreatic cancer live five or more years past diagnosis. Additionally, the average life expectancy after diagnosis with metastatic disease, which occurs when a cancer spreads to other parts of the body, is just three to six months. 

With that knowledge in mind, prevention then seems to be our best bet. One of the ways we can help prevent pancreatic cancer is by taking care of our teeth and gums as studies have revealed a link between periodontal disease and pancreatic cancer.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study in 2007 that stated a history of periodontal disease was associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. According to researchers, the increased risk could be due to systemic inflammation or increased levels of carcinogenic compounds produced in the infected mouth.

Dental Health & Pregnancy Complications

Researchers have also discovered a possible correlation between dental health and complications with pregnancy and birth. The theory behind this is that gum disease or an inflammation in the mouth could trigger an increase in a chemical compound that induces labor called prostaglandin. This theory has not yet been confirmed; however, studies have shown a relationship between periodontal disease and pregnancy complications such as low birth weight and preterm birth.

According to a study conducted in 2001, pregnant women are four to seven times more likely to give birth before week 37 if they developed gum disease between weeks 21 and 24. Evidence also shows that extremely poor gum health can lead to low birth weight.

While neglecting oral health during pregnancy is certainly a factor in developing gum disease, fluctuating hormones associated with pregnancy can also result in gum inflections. So, it stands to reason that taking additional precautions while pregnant may not only be good for the teeth and gums but also for the health of the baby.

Maintaining healthy teeth and gums on our own can be difficult, especially with all of the mouth's hard-to-reach places like the spaces between teeth and the gum pockets where harmful bacteria live. As we've seen, this toxic bacteria can be absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to a number of serious health conditions like heart disease and cancer. It can also be aspirated into the lungs, potentially resulting in life-threatening pneumonia.

These risks should not be taken lightly. That is why proper oral care that includes teeth brushing, flossing, and regular teeth cleanings by a dental hygienist is so important. Not only will you experience benefits associated with your teeth and gums, but you will also be aiding your immune system to fight infections that may come along. If it's time for your next cleaning, check out our discount dental plan to find out how you can save money on your dental services. Learn more here… 

Resources:

  1. http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/features/oral-health-the-mouth-body-connection
  2. http://www.medschool.lsuhsc.edu/genetics_center/louisiana/article_oralcavity1.htm
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21969416
  4. http://www.pancreatic.org/site/c.htJYJ8MPIwE/b.5050503/k.40C9/Pancreatic_Cancer_Facts.htm

 

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