While many of us dutifully brush our teeth two or three times per day (and perhaps hopefully have the habit of daily flossing), do we ever make the connection between dental health and overall health?
Sure, it’s nice to avoid cavities and take care of our teeth, but there are deeper reasons that good dental health and hygiene are important for your entire body and many of its systems.
There are also many disease processes caused by, associated with, or linked to dental and oral health problems.
It’s (Mostly) All About Bacteria
There are countless bacteria living in your mouth at any given time, and while some are rather benign, other species of oral bacteria are potentially hazardous to your health. When plaque builds up on the surfaces of your teeth, bacteria can take hold. As the oral bacteria grow out of control, they release toxins and acids that eat away at your tooth enamel, causing caries (cavities) and other problems such as periodontal disease and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums).
When certain conditions lead to damaged and impaired gingival surfaces, cracks and lesions in the gum tissue then allow bacteria to enter into the bloodstream and become systemic.
Have you ever known an individual with a weakened immune system, heart valve defect or heart condition who has to take antibiotics prior to receiving dental work? One reason for such treatment is to prevent endocarditis, an infection of the lining of the heart that can be caused by bacteria from the oral cavity. These bacteria can also cause heart valve infections.
All sources agree that diabetes decreases your body’s ability to ward off infection. For people with diabetes, infections of the gums and mouth can lead to severe gum damage and tooth loss. Tight blood sugar control and excellent oral hygiene can help to prevent these types of dental complications for diabetics.
For those individuals with eating disorders, dental health is an issue worth exploring. Bulemics who regurgitate their food after eating subject their tooth enamel to the very corrosive effects of stomach acids, and this can lead to cavities, discoloration, gum disease and tooth loss.
In anorexia, the lack of proper nutrition can lead to osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones in the jaw, and tooth loss.
Speaking of osteoporosis, if you already have this condition, oral hygiene is extremely important, since bone loss is as likely to occur in the jaw than anywhere else. Some sources state that the risk of tooth loss is up to three times higher for women with osteoporosis.
Research is beginning to link gum disease with the risk of developing heart disease, but this connection has not yet been completely established. There may be a link between oral bacteria, inflammation, and plaque buildup in the blood vessels, but this potential link is still being investigated.
It is well known that smoking cigarettes can cause tooth discoloration, but some sources state that an enormous percentage of smokers over age 65 are edentulous (without teeth). Smoking also increases the risk of bone loss in the jaw, gum tissue damage, as well as oral sores and cancers.
Pregnancy and Birth
Although the link is not yet fully established, there is growing evidence that gum disease during pregnancy can contribute to low birth weight and prematurity.
Some studies suggest that tooth prior to the age of 35 may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Even though some of the research is not yet 100 percent conclusive, there is no doubt that gum disease and oral health are inextricably linked to overall health and specific body systems. Even if some of the research being conducted does not yield absolute evidence, the indisputable links between oral health and cardiovascular, bone and heart health are enough to make almost anyone pick up some floss and a toothbrush without hesitation.
Good dental hygiene simply makes sense, and the fact that more and more connections are being made between oral health and other aspects of health underscores what dentists and dental hygienists have been telling us for years. Their recommendations include:
• Brushing after each meal, or at least two times per day
• Flossing once daily
• Having regular dental checkups and prophylactic cleanings
• Eating a healthy diet
• Changing your toothbrush three to four times per year
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