Too Young for Gum Disease? Don't Count on It

Condition Can Start in Young Adults Without Symptoms; May Complicate Pregnancies

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 20, 2005

Sept. 20, 2005 -- Young adults may want to make a special effort to care for their teeth and gums, even if their smiles look great, according to new research on gum disease.

Gum disease can start much earlier than you might expect, without obvious symptoms, and it could boost the odds of health problems including preterm birth in affected pregnant women.

So say researchers from the dentistry school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Their findings were presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.

Gum Disease and Young Adults

Sometime between baby teeth and dentures, gum disease can settle in silently.

That process can be under way when people are still in their 20s -- and it may start without obvious traces, the UNC studies show.

One study included more than 300 people in their 20s who planned to keep their wisdom teeth. Two years later, results are in for 254 of those young adults.

Many participants had gum disease without symptoms around their wisdom teeth, and their gum disease often worsened in just two years.

Surprising Finding

The result was unexpected, notes researcher Raymond White Jr., DDS, PhD. He's a former UNC dean and Dalton L. Michael Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

"That a quarter of patients in their 20s had periodontal problems with no symptoms was a surprise to us since most people assumed that you don't get periodontal problems until you are 35 or 40," says White in a news release.

White's team offers this advice:

  • Most dentists advise removing wisdom teeth affected by gum disease.
  • If patients want to keep wisdom teeth affected by gum disease, they need to commit to "a lifetime of aggressive treatment."
  • Dentists should check wisdom teeth for gum disease.

Gum Disease and Pregnancy

Gum disease has been linked to heart disease, higher odds of preterm birth, and other health problems.

The risk of early delivery was probed by White's team. They checked records of about 1,000 pregnant women.

About half of the moms-to-be had been referred to a university clinic due to high-risk pregnancies. More than one in 10 of them had moderate to severe gum disease when the study started (13%).

Nearly one in five women gave birth early (18%). That's more than twice as high as the estimated risk for the general public, the researchers note.

The odds of preterm delivery were highest for women with moderate to severe gum disease. The same might not be true for women with less risky pregnancies, write the researchers.

Inflammation from gum disease could make preterm delivery more likely, according to White's team. All women of childbearing age should be made aware of that risk, they write.