An estimated 9-15% of Americans avoid going to the dentist due to anxiety and fear. Even those of us who go to the dentist on a regular basis sometimes fail to practice good oral hygiene. Studies have found that, of adults age 30 and older, 47.2% of us have some form of periodontal disease. Although none of us wants to deal with a cavity or have a tooth pulled, there’s a prevailing idea that if you have a problem with your teeth, that problem stays in your mouth.
But several studies have now found links between periodontal disease and other serious health concerns. Researchers are exploring the relationship between gum and periodontal disease and heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and at-risk pregnancies. Other studies are looking at the connection between bleeding gums or gingivitis and pancreatic cancer, and still others are seeing a possible connection between mouth bacteria and Alzheimer’s disease.
As of yet, none of the relationships are definitively linked. In the case of gum diseases, it’s still unknown whether it’s a symptom or a condition that exacerbates other diseases. However, the link between gum disease and diabetes, at-risk pregnancies, stroke, and heart disease has been found to be consistent — so much so that certain insurance policies will offer extra periodontal care at little or no cost for those with these conditions. The question now is whether the relationship between these conditions is causal or whether they simply correlate.
Until researchers are able to find out more about these relationships, dentists are recommending diligent oral care habits more than ever before. In fact, practicing good oral hygiene and receiving periodontal care was shown to save a significant amount of money for those who suffer from conditions like diabetes, cerebral vascular disease, and coronary artery disease. Treating gum disease (or periodontitis) in these patients resulted in fewer hospitalizations and decreased medical costs than for those who did not receive follow-up periodontal care. When Type 2 diabetes patients who had periodontal disease were compared, those who received follow-up care saved 40% on their medical costs and had 40% fewer hospitalizations than those who did not. For cerebral vascular patients, those who were treated for their gum disease saved 41% on medical costs and has 21% fewer hospitalizations. And in coronary artery disease sufferers, recipients of periodontal care saved 11% on medical costs and had 30% fewer hospitalizations.
Although periodontal care reduces overall costs, more research needs to be done in order to further explore the relationships between oral hygiene and serious health concerns. Because some mouth bacteria has been found within the cholesterol plaques that form in coronary arteries, researchers have speculated that poor oral hygiene and gum disease causes mouth bacteria to attach to the arterial wall — which could lead to inflammation, cholesterol blockages, or even heart attacks. Other studies are looking at the connection between gum disease and conditions like chronic kidney disease, cognitive impairment, respiratory disease, obesity, and cancer. An analysis published earlier this year shows an association between breast cancer and periodontal disease in post-menopausal women. However, other risk factors need to be taken into account when delving further into these studies, including gender, age, weight, medical history, and whether or not the subject smokes. Just because a link is found doesn’t mean that that condition is at the very root of the disease.
Overall, dentists and researchers are making us think twice about neglecting our oral health. Although these relationships have yet to be explored to their full extent, there are countless reasons to not forgo that brushing and flossing routine.