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What the state of your mouth says about your general health

08 December 2015, 13:01 Maretha Smit, CEO of the South African Dental Association

While most people see oral health only as having a beautiful smile and minty-fresh breath, research has shown that oral health is, in fact, essential to general health.

Or as Pamela McClain, president of the American Academy of Periodontology, puts it, “Your body can affect your mouth and likewise, your mouth can affect your body. Taking good care of your teeth and gums can really help you live well longer."

McClain is not the only one positing this. The past 10 to 15 years have seen ballooning interest in possible links between oral health and general health.

And while current scientific data does not indicate if regular brushing and flossing or treatment of gum disease will decrease the incidence, rate or severity of the narrowing of the arteries (called atherosclerosis) that can lead to heart attacks and strokes, many studies show an as-yet-unexplained association between gum disease and several serious health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, even after adjusting for common risk factors, the American Heart Foundation points out.

What happens when you have gum disease:

“The mouth can be a good warning signpost,” says Dr Ann Bolger, Professor of Clinical Medicine and the Director of Echocardiography at San Francisco General Hospital in the US.

“People with periodontitis (severe gum disease) often have risk factorsthat not only put their mouth at risk, but their heart and blood vessels, too.

But whether one causes the other has not actually been shown.”

To understand how the mouth can affect the body, it helps to understand what can go wrong in the first place. If not dealt with by regular dental check-ups, bacteria can build up on teeth, making gums prone to infection.

The negative effects of bacteria on teeth can be seen when it wears down the outer layer of enamel in conjunction with any acidity in the mouth as a result of one’s diet. This not only affects overall oral health, but also can lead to a multitude of issues ranging from bleeding gums to loss of bone and loosening of teeth.

The immune system moves in to attack the infection and the gums become inflamed. If the infection is not brought under control,  inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away over time at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place. The result is severe gum disease, known as periodontitis.

The relationship between diabetes and periodontitis is one of the best-studied examples of a strong connection between oral and general health.

Inflammation that starts in the mouth seems to weaken the body’s ability to control blood sugar.

People with diabetes have difficulty processing sugar because of a lack of insulin, the hormone that converts sugar into energy. High blood sugar also provides ideal conditions for further growth of bacteria, which can lead to infections of the mouth and gums.

Though the reasons are not fully understood, it’s clear that gum disease and heart disease often go hand in hand.

According to the American Dental Association, nine out of 10 patients with heart disease have periodontitis, compared to two-thirds of people with no heart disease. The two conditions also have several risk factors in common, such as smoking, unhealthy diet and excess weight.

Apart from diabetes and heart disease, other conditions and diseases linked to oral health are:

  • HIV/AIDS – oral problems, including an increase in painful mucosal lesions, are common in people who have HIV/AIDS
  • Endocarditis – this is an infection of the inner lining of the heart and  typically occurs when a specific strain of Streptococcus is present in the mouth. This  spreads through the bloodstream and attach to damaged areas in the heart, resulting in endocarditis
  • Pregnancy and birth – pregnant women who suffer from periodontitis have been linked to cases of premature birth and low birth weight
  • Osteoporosis – this condition, which causes bones to become weak and brittle, might be linked with periodontal bone loss and tooth loss
  • Alzheimer's disease – tooth loss before age 35 has been documented as one of the risk factors associated with Alzheimer's disease

What to do?

While apples act as toothbrushes by cleaning teeth and killing bacteria in the mouth – in addition to helping maintain overall health and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and asthma – munching on the fruit is not enough to keep your teeth and gums healthy.

Nor is brushing and flossing daily – even though they help to maintain oral health.

Only regular visits to a dentist will ensure healthy teeth and gums, because smoking and drinking, the foods you eat, the things you drink and even the sugar content in fruit can all harm your teeth.

Fortunately, there is a way to try and prevent this: visit your dentist regularly.

When it comes to your teeth, gums and oral health, visiting your dentist is the best form of prevention.

Brushing and flossing are great for keeping up with your oral health, but ultimately you don't visit your dentist when you are sick, you visit regularly to ensure you don't develop oral or other health issues.

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- Health24

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