Your Gums or Your Life
Written by Richard Stinson
(redacted highlights only) Modern Maturity Magazine: Jul.-Aug. 2000
I admit it. As my periodontist prepared to probe my gums with a shiny Orwellian torture device, I was scared. Then he began talking about gum disease and – I realized things could be worse.
Studies increasingly show a connection between good gums and good overall health. Gum disease (also known as periodontal disease), has been linked to a variety of systemic health problems, including heart disease and stroke.
Here’s why periodontal disease may affect your overall health. Periodontitis is infection of the gum, bone and other tissues surrounding the tooth, caused by a build up of tartar below the gum line. More than 350 types of bacteria can flourish in the tartar (hardened plaque) on your teeth and enter your blood stream directly through damaged and bleeding gums. This invasion can create havoc throughout your body, including your heart.
“An accumulating body of evidence suggests that periodontal infection may contribute to arteriosclerotic heart disease,” says oral bacteria researcher Robert J. Genco, D.D.S., Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine. In a recent University of Michigan study involving 400 men 60 or older, researchers found that those suffering from advanced periodontal disease were four and a half times more likely to have coronary heart disease than those without gum disease.
Why is periodontal disease so hard on your heart? Researchers at SUNY at Buffalo have shown that people with gum disease tend to have high blood levels of fibrinogen, a molecule which can cause clotting and C-reactive protein, an inflammatory molecule. The study reported in the February 2000 American Journal of Epidemiology also found that people with periodontal disease might have higher levels of cholesterol.
Periodontal disease increases your risk of stroke. The same molecules that affect your heart can also block the blood flow to your brain, increasing your risk of stroke. A 1999 preliminary study at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons found that people with diseased gums tended to have more plaque in their carotid (neck) arteries. Those with the most diseased gums had 1.12 millimeters of build-up in their artery lining, compared with 0.74 millimeters for those with the healthiest gums. That’s not good, since the National Stroke Association estimates that clots or blockages cause 80% of all strokes – one reason why neurologists should keep an eye on their patients teeth.
Diabetes, Osteoporosis, Respiratory problems and regular dental visits.Diabetics should also schedule regular dental visits. Researchers at the Texas A&M University Health Science Center have found that uncontrolled diabetes can lead to a higher risk of gum disease, which, in turn, can make diabetes more problematic by reducing the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels. The increased bacteria load in the body caused by periodontal disease has also been linked to osteoporosis and respiratory problems.
Why this is good news for your health and your doctor. There is an upside to all of this. Dentists and doctors are increasingly checking their patients mouths for early signs of hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers are studying whether dental x-rays of bones around the jaw can help predict the onset of osteoporosis elsewhere in the body leading to earlier diagnosis. In early 2001 dental organizations, physicians and biologists plan to convene at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland, to review the latest research linking gum infection and chronic diseases of the body.
For now, there is little mystery about how to care for your gums. With conscientious brushing, consistent flossing, and semi-annual dental visits, gum disease can usually be prevented or controlled. In addition, if you need to visit the periodontist, don’t be afraid. Today’s gum treatments are more pain-free than you think and far better than the alternative of heart disease and stroke.
Your Gums or Your Life: The key to a healthy heart is dental floss?
By Richard Stinson: Modern Maturity Magazine: July-August 2000