While it may be a fairly recent discovery in the world of medicine, the health of one’s mouth and the rest of the body are inextricably linked. Taking care of your mouth and maintaining proper oral hygiene can do more for you than limit cavities — according to new research, it could actually help lower your risk for developing certain infections and maybe even prevent diabetes.
The link being investigated is that between periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, and systemic infections and diseases including pneumonia, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. What is periodontal disease? Gum disease occurs when an overgrowth of bacteria is present in the mouth causing the gums to become inflamed and possibly begin to erode or decay. A reported 80 percent of Japanese people over the age of 30 have periodontal disease, which has become the No. 1 reason for tooth loss in Japan. Researchers have found gum disease can serve as a catalyst for other illnesses, either increasing your risk for developing them or increasing severity. But how does this happen?
When the teeth aren’t cleaned properly on a daily basis, the bacteria found within the mouth can accumulate on the gums and teeth as well as in between the teeth. After a while, this neglected buildup of microorganisms can become stuck together by sugars, forming a biofilm otherwise known as plaque, which deprives the tissues of oxygen. Over time, this causes the decay of the gums, opening up holes or pockets that allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream. As this bacteria travels throughout the body, it can wreak havoc on a number of the body’s vital systems and lead to infection or illness in a place that seems wholly unrelated to the mouth, such as the heart, lungs or even the brain.
The symptoms that follow can be clues that indicate the presence of other conditions in the body. While the visible symptoms — swollen, red and bleeding gums — will be obvious indicators of gum disease, those we cannot see, such as the release of C-reactive protein by the liver (an organ that plays a crucial role in the immune system) can also be signs of conditions like heart disease. This is why some medical professionals argue gum disease should be treated both on its own and as a symptom to be investigated for perhaps a larger issue.
More time and research are needed to determine if this connection between gum disease and systemic disease could possibly explain the development of conditions like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or even cancer in patients who don’t exhibit any other risk factors. It may be too early to say that brushing your teeth can prevent diabetes, but it has been suggested gum disease serves as a risk factor for diabetes and can actually worsen symptoms of the disease in those already diagnosed with it. While research has shown oral bacteria present in other parts of the body, it can’t be named a clear cause for illness at this point.
In the meantime, brushing your teeth regularly and getting annual professional cleanings from your dentist remain the best way to prevent gum disease. Looking for a toothbrush that is specifically for gum care is an excellent first step. A brush like the Philips Sonicare GumHealth has longer bristles that are more effective at removing plaque, but have a softer texture to ensure they’re gentle on the sensitive tissues of the gums to prevent further irritation. While we cannot yet say definitely proper oral hygiene can prevent diabetes and other serious illnesses that may impact your long-term health, time and science have shown us it certainly can’t hurt.