Oral Health: The Mouth-Body Connection
Oral Health and Pregnancy
Babies born too early or at a low birth weight often have significant health problems, including lung conditions, heart conditions, and learning disorders. While many factors can contribute to premature or low birth weight deliveries, researchers are looking at the possible role of gum disease. Infection and inflammation in general seem to interfere with a fetus’ development in the womb.
Though men have periodontitis more often than women do, hormonal changes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk. For the best chance of a healthy pregnancy, McClain recommends a comprehensive periodontal exam "if you’re pregnant or before you become pregnant to identify whether or not you’re at risk."
Oral Health and Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis and periodontitis have an important thing in common, bone loss. The link between the two, however, is controversial. Cram points out that osteoporosis affects the long bones in the arms and legs, whereas gum disease attacks the jawbone. Others point to the fact that osteoporosis mainly affects women, whereas periodontitis is more common among men.
Though a link has not been well established, some studies have found that women with osteoporosis have gum disease more often than those who do not. Researchers are testing the theory that inflammation triggered by periodontitis could weaken bone in other parts of the body.
Oral Health and Smoking
Not smoking is one of the most important things you can do for your mouth and your body. According to the CDC, a smoker’s risk of severe gum disease is three times higher than someone who does not smoke.
"Nicotine in cigarettes causes blood vessels to constrict," McClain tells WebMD. This interferes with your gums’ ability to fight infection. Not only that, smoking interferes with treatment -- gum surgeries tend to be more complicated and recovery more difficult.
Oral Health and Other Conditions
The impact of oral health on the body is a relatively new area of study. Some other mouth-body connections under current investigation include:
Rheumatoid Arthritis. Treating periodontal disease has been shown to reduce pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.
Lung Conditions. Periodontal disease may make pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease worse, possibly by increasing the amount of bacteria in the lungs.
Obesity. Two studies have linked obesity to gum disease. It appears that periodontitis progresses more quickly in the presence of higher body fat.
The Bottom Line on Oral Health
One thing is clear: the body and mouth are not separate. "Your body can affect your mouth and likewise, your mouth can affect your body," says McClain. "Taking good care of your teeth and gums can really help you live well longer." This means brushing twice a day, flossing once a day, and going for regular dental cleanings and check-ups.
Cram stresses the importance of letting your dentist know your full family medical history. And, she adds, "if you have periodontal disease, make sure you see your dentist frequently and get it treated promptly, before it progresses to the point where you begin losing teeth or it starts to affect your overall health."