Dental Care: You Can Prevent More Than Cavities©

“Watch your mouth," the saying goes, and science is turning up ever more reasons to heed that advice literally. Preventing gum disease (periodontitis), the leading cause of adult tooth loss, is gaining new urgency as research shows that gum disease can contribute to illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and pneumonia. The culprit, scientists believe, is a spillover of bacteria and inflammatory agents from the mouth into the bloodstream, which bustles them off to the rest of the body. Related problems include these:

Diabetes

Gum disease and diabetes behave with yin-yang synergy. Because diabetes can affect circulation, it can restrict blood flow to the gums. That along with suppressed immunity in patients with diabetes can create the perfect setup for periodontitis. Recent research has suggested that treating periodontal disease can improve blood-sugar control. Some major insurance companies already offer patients with diabetes extended coverage for periodontal treatments.

Heart Disease

Having gum disease can increase your risk of heart disease, a study found. Other data show that adults with the highest levels of some oral bacteria have thicker carotid arteries, a predictor of heart attack and stroke; and people who suffer from angina and heart attacks have higher levels of certain oral bacteria. Plus, oral bacteria provoke inflammation, which may increase levels of white blood cells and C-reactive protein. That protein, found in the blood, has been linked to heart disease. A March 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study of 120 patients found that aggressive treatment of periodontal disease was linked to improved circulation. In a recent trial, periodontal therapy reduced patients’ C-reactive protein levels.

Pneumonia

Poor oral hygiene has been shown to contribute to fatal pneumonias in hospital patients and nursing-home residents. In those settings, lax oral hygiene can foster a buildup of bacteria capable of causing respiratory infection. A patient placed on a respirator, for instance, is susceptible to breathing those bacteria, causing pneumonia. Institutions can avoid such infections by practicing stringent oral hygiene, including swabbing patients’ mouths with plaque-inhibiting rinses containing chlorhexidine (Peridex, PerioGard).

Taking care of your mouth and teeth can help stave off periodontal disease and possibly other serious illnesses.

ABCs of Oral Care

Eat a diet high in calcium and vitamins C and D. Avoid sugary foods: When oral bacteria ferment sugar, they create tooth-eroding acids.

Brush your teeth twice a day, and floss daily to remove plaque and bacteria.

See your dentist twice yearly for checkups (including an oral cancer exam). If you smoke or have periodontal disease or diabetes, you may need cleaning and checkups every three to four months.

2008 by Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. Yonkers, NY 10703-1057, a nonprofit organization. Reprinted with permission from the May 2008 issue of CONSUMER REPORTS ON HEALTH® for educational purposes only. No commercial use or reproduction permitted.