If your eyes are the window to your soul, then your mouth is a mirror of your health. Although that idea may seem farfetched, health experts believe that good oral health care does more than prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
"Any disease related to the mouth has an impact elsewhere in the body," says Denis F. Kinane, BDS, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Researchers are studying the association between oral health, inflammation, and disease. Inflammation, which is the body's response to infection, seems to play a key role in many health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and gum disease, also called periodontal disease. Scientists hope to understand how these diseases are interrelated, and whether treating the inflammation caused by gum disease can improve other diseases.
This is important research because about 30% to 50% of American adults have mild to moderate gum disease. Another 5% to 15% have more severe disease, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. And although genetics may increase your risk for gum disease, most cases can be controlled by brushing and flossing regularly.
Here's an overview of the latest research on the connection between oral health and overall health.
Inflammation and the Diseases of Aging: Where Gum Disease Fits In
"In recent years, there's been an interest in the medical community about the chronic diseases of aging and how inflammation in general seems to be the link, whether it's cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, or diabetes," says Nadeem Karimbux, DMD, MMSc, assistant dean in the Office of Dental Education at Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Boston. "And periodontal disease fits right into this picture." Because gum disease can be hidden under the gums, it can easily be overlooked. Yet if you calculate the amount of inflammation around the gums in someone with moderate to severe gum disease, it would be equal in size to the palm of your hand, he says.
"If you imagine a person with diabetes walking around with a palm-sized inflammation on their skin, you'd want to jump in and treat it right away," Karimbux says. So why shouldn't you consider that gum inflammation, even though it's in the mouth, adds to the amount of inflammation a person has at any given time and is just another risk factor that connects all these diseases?
The Oral Health-Heart Connection: Periodontal Disease and Heart Disease
The connection between periodontal disease and heart disease is well established in the medical literature, Karimbux says. People with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease according to the American Academy of Periodontology. And a 2008 analysis published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that periodontal disease was a risk factor for heart disease separate from other risk factors, such as smoking. Other studies have shown that having gum disease increases the risk for stroke.