For so long, most people operated under the mindset that cavities and gum disease weren’t necessarily good for you, but they wouldn’t really cause too many problems, either. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose your teeth and get dentures. At least that’s what most people thought.
Unfortunately, research continues to show more and more links between gum disease and serious medical conditions. We now understand, better than ever before, the influence that infections in the mouth can have on the rest of the body.
Gum Disease is a Chronic Infection
One of the reasons for the common misconception that gum disease isn’t really a big deal is the fact that many people do not realize that it is an infectious disease. Gum disease, officially called periodontal disease, is a bacterial infection that builds up on the surface of the teeth. As the infection grows and spreads, it causes destruction of the bone and gums surrounding a tooth.
Periodontal disease can affect just one tooth or all of the teeth in the mouth. It can be acute, causing pain and swelling in the gums, but more often it is chronic and slowly-growing. We often call periodontal disease a “silent” disease because most people are unaware that they have it. They may notice a little gum recession and some bad breath, but the absence of pain lulls people into a sense of “health”.
The presence of a bacterial infection anywhere in the body stimulates our immune system to respond with inflammation. Inflammation is a wonderful response to acute infections and injuries. However, when it becomes chronic, it too becomes problematic, destroying more tissue than it repairs.
Cardiovascular disease describes any disease that affects the heart or blood vessels, so it includes high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis (clogged arteries), heart attacks, and strokes. Recent studies show that a person with chronic periodontal disease has a 1.5 times higher risk for coronary artery disease than someone with a healthy mouth. Someone with chronic periodontal disease also has twice the risk for fatal heart attack compared to someone with healthy gums, and triple the risk for a stroke.
These numbers are scary! The increased risk in each of these areas is due to the spread of bacteria from the mouth into the blood vessels, which means the spread of the toxins those bacteria produce. The body’s response to bacterial toxins is inflammation. One study showed periodontal-disease-causing bacteria present in samples taken of plaque buildup in the blood vessels of patients with chronic gum disease.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body can no longer control the levels of “sugar” (glucose) in the blood. Millions of Americans suffer from diabetes, and millions more are pre-diabetic. Diabetes causes a loss of blood vessel and nerve tissue in the extremities, which is why it can lead to blindness or the loss of toes. The reason it affects the mouth is that gums are an extremity.
This means that diabetic patients are less capable of fighting an infection in the gums, and periodontal disease can progress faster and cause more destruction.
We have known for many years that diabetic patients with gum disease do not respond as well to treatment and have a higher risk for losing teeth. More recent studies also show that the presence of chronic infection in the mouth actually makes it more difficult for a diabetic patient to control his blood sugar. So these two diseases operate in a vicious cycle, one worsening the other and vice versa.
If you suffer from diabetes and gum disease, it is essential to work with both your endocrinologist and your dentist to successfully treat both.
The link between periodontal disease and Alzheimer’s is a very recent development in research, and more studies are necessary to confirm the results newly found. This recent study investigated a specific bacterium, Porphyromonas gingivalis, and its presence in neurological tissues of Alzheimer’s patients, both alive and deceased. P.g. is a particularly bad bug in periodontal disease and stereotypically found only in the gums. This study found it present in the brain of deceased Alzheimer’s patients and in the cerebrospinal fluid of living Alzheimer’s patients.
There are many other scientific studies showing an increased risk of Alzheimer’s patients among people with chronic infections and inflammation.
This is also a link that isn’t well understood, and more research is needed. The premise is that any chronic infection or inflammation in the body increases your risk for cancer of any kind. Obviously, there are many other risk factors for cancer, including genetic predisposition and carcinogenic habits (like smoking or sun exposure). The hypothesis is that chronic infection and/or inflammation compounds your risk.
When you think of your body’s immune system as an army fighting the battles of infection and injury throughout the body, it makes sense that its ability to fight cancer cells decreases if it is fighting other chronic diseases.
Gum Disease Treatment
Periodontal disease is not something to ignore. As with other diseases, early detection leads to treatment that is less extensive, less expensive and more successful. Once initial treatment removes the bacterial infection, it is important to stay consistent with maintenance visits to prevent relapse.
More Questions about Gum Disease?
Call 972-347-1145 to schedule a visit with Dr. Jill and Dr. Cara today. They will assess your risk for gum disease and current medical history. If there is a risk for complicating medical conditions, they’ll refer you to your medical doctor. At PFD, we care about your overall health!