The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the teeth and gums may be the windows to the rest of your body. Recent studies have found significant links between gum health and overall well-being. Last August, researchers at New York University and the University of Copenhagen found that periodontal inflammation may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as diminish brain function in those who already have Alzheimer’s.
This news comes in the wake of studies that link periodontal disease to heart disease, diabetes, oral cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and respiratory ailments. Preterm delivery and low birth weight in babies also have been found to be more common in women with gum disease.
Periodontal disease occurs when gums fall away from the teeth and form spaces, or “pockets,” that become infected and inflamed. The body’s immune system attacks the bacteria, eventually breaking down bone and tissue that keep teeth in place. Without treatment—which usually includes deep cleaning and, in more severe cases, surgery—the gums, bone, and tissue that support teeth are badly damaged.
Gingivitis is a milder version and can be a precursor to periodontal disease. Gums are red and swollen and bleed easily, but brushing and flossing to get rid of the sticky plaque that forms and having regular dental cleanings to remove hardened plaque, or tartar, is usually enough to keep the condition in check.
Still not clear is whether periodontal disease causes illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s or if another underlying mechanism is at work to set the stage for these ailments. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, one theory is that oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream and attach themselves to fatty plaques in coronary arteries, leading to clots and heart attacks. Another is that inflammation caused by periodontal disease increases plaque buildup, which contributes to the swelling of arteries. Studies, including several funded by the National Institutes of Health, are under way.
The good news, says DC periodontist Sally Cram, is that most cases of periodontal disease are preventable: “Your teeth are something you can take care of in minutes with good home care like brushing and flossing and regular checkups and cleaning.” Periodontal disease can run in families, according to Cram, so let your dentist know any family history of not only gum disease but also Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. Smoking is likewise a risk factor.
Cram says that knowing the warning signs of gum disease—bleeding, redness, swelling, and loose teeth—is important: “By the time the tooth really hurts, it’s usually too late and the tooth has to be extracted.”
This feature first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.