You know you’re supposed to brush and floss every day, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s not just about preventing cavities and keeping your smile pearly white. It’s also because keeping your mouth healthy is an important part of your overall health and well-being.
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Oral health is linked to whole-body health, which means that problems with your teeth and gums can lead to other health concerns like heart disease, stroke and more. Periodontist Sasha Ross, DMD, MS, explains the connection between oral health and the rest of your body, including how you can best practice good dental hygiene.
Why oral health matters
You might think of your mouth as separate from the rest of your body, whether because your dentist is different from your doctor, or because your dental insurance isn’t bundled with the rest of your health insurance.
“In reality, though, you should think of your mouth as an extension of the rest of your body,” Dr. Ross says. “By looking in a person’s mouth, I often get a sense of what their overall health is.”
Having poor oral health can include conditions like:
- Gingivitis, when bacteria infect your gums. It’s a mild, early form of gum disease.
- Periodontal disease is a gum infection that leads to inflamed gums and bone loss around teeth.
- Tooth decay, like from untreated cavities.
What can happen if you have poor oral health?
Beyond yellowing smiles and bad breath, poor oral health can also contribute to a number of health issues that affect your whole body. Dr. Ross explains some of the most critical among them.
The umbrella term “cardiovascular disease” refers to a group of disorders related to your heart and your blood vessels. Having poor oral health is associated with forms of cardiovascular disease like:
- Coronary artery disease: As the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease can lead to heart attack, heart failure and more. It’s the leading cause of death in the United States.
- Clogged arteries: Studies show that people with periodontal disease have significantly higher rates of atherosclerosis, when plaque builds up inside the blood vessels that deliver blood and oxygen from your heart to your body.
- Stroke: Studies show a strong association between periodontal disease and strokes, specifically strokes related to atherosclerosis.
A caveat, though: “Keep in mind that even though cardiovascular disease and periodontal disease are associated with each other, there’s so far no evidence that one causes the other,” Dr. Ross says.
If you have heart disease or other heart-related health issues, you’re at a higher risk of developing endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of your heart valves (and sometimes the lining of your heart chambers).
“Endocarditis is caused by a bacterial infection that you can contract during procedures like tooth extractions,” Dr. Ross explains. “It doesn’t typically affect healthy hearts, but if you have existing heart issues, it can be fatal.”
Pregnancy and birth complications
When you’re pregnant, there’s extra reason to take care of your body — including your mouth. In people who are pregnant, poor oral health is associated with:
- Fetal growth restriction.
- Gestational diabetes.
- Low birth weight.
“Again, the thought is that oral bacteria can travel into the bloodstream and cause harm to the fetus,” Dr. Ross warns.
“The thinking is that bacteria from the mouth can aspirate into the upper airway and into the lungs, which may be related to causing pneumonia,” Dr. Ross explains. “It also makes it easier for the bacteria that cause respiratory infections to stick in the lungs.”
Of course, having a healthy mouth is key to your ability to consume healthy meals. “The act of eating, which is essential for our survival, really depends on having teeth in your mouth and healthy teeth and gums,” Dr. Ross says.
Untreated cavities can lead to poor nutrition and stunted growth and development in children. They can also cause issues like:
What affects your oral health?
There are a few factors that contribute to the relationship between oral health and systemic health. Dr. Ross explains some of the links.
Common risk factors
Periodontal disease and systemic disorders share a number of common risk factors, including:
- A poor diet, especially one high in sugar.
- Tobacco use.
- Excessive alcohol use.
- High stress.
All of these things can cause periodontal disease or cavities, and they can also cause systemic health disorders — so it makes sense that if you have one or more of these risk factors, you might have other related health concerns.
Blame it on Mom and Dad: “Certain people are just more predisposed to developing periodontal disease and systemic diseases,” Dr. Ross explains.
Your body’s response to bacteria
This one isn’t genetic, per se, but it is related to your unique and inherent bodily responses.
“Everyone’s body responds to bacteria differently,” Dr. Ross says. “For instance, our bodies mount a huge response to bacteria that can, in some people, cause inflammation and other damage.”
Levels of inflammatory molecules like C-reactive protein are often elevated in people who have both periodontal disease and systemic disease.
Certain medical conditions
Just like poor oral health can contribute to other medical conditions, the reverse is true, too: There are some diseases and disorders that can cause oral health problems.
One of the big ones is diabetes. “People with poorly controlled diabetes have a much greater risk of developing periodontal disease and of having that periodontal disease progress and be more severe in nature,” Dr. Ross says.
Osteoporosis is also associated with periodontal disease, as studies suggest that the low bone mineral density associated with the condition can affect your jaw. The type of bone loss associated with periodontal disease is called alveolar bone loss, which refers to the part of your jawbone that has tooth sockets.
Other conditions that can affect your oral health include:
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Prostate cancer.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
“There are many studies coming out right now that show connections between these conditions and periodontal disease,” Dr. Ross says. “We expect more data soon that continues to show a linkage between them.”
How to practice good oral hygiene
If you’re starting to feel a little panicky that you haven’t flossed your teeth yet today (or this week), take a deep breath. There’s plenty you can start doing right now to improve your oral hygiene habits and keep your mouth both happy and healthy.
Here’s what Dr. Ross recommends.
- Brush your teeth twice a day. Use a fluoridated toothpaste and make sure you’re brushing for two whole minutes. Dr. Ross recommends using an electric toothbrush.
- Floss once a day. To hit those tough-to-clean crevices, use actual dental floss rather than those little floss picks. And if you’re not sure you’re flossing right, ask your dentist or dental hygienist to walk you through it.
- Try other home tools for oral hygiene. Options like mouthwash and Waterpik® can help you keep your teeth and gums in tip-top shape.
- See your dentist twice a year. Regular exams, X-rays and cleanings will keep your smile looking great and keep you healthy. “Seeing your dentist more regularly has been shown to decrease your risk for developing a stroke and other conditions,” Dr. Ross says.
- Make an appointment with a periodontist. If you’ve never visited one, now’s the time to start! Dr. Ross recommends making an annual appointment with a periodontist, who can make sure your gums and jaw are healthy (and help you keep them that way).
- Manage your other health concerns. Focusing on heart health and managing conditions like diabetes and osteoporosis are critical to keeping your mouth healthy (not to mention the rest of you).
- Maintain a healthy overall lifestyle. What’s good for your body is good for your mouth, too. To keep yourself on a healthy path, try to exercise regularly, eat nutritious foods and avoid activities like smoking and drinking to excess.
“Treating your oral health can impact your overall health, so it’s really important to take care of your teeth and your mouth,” Dr. Ross reiterates.
What if you’re afraid of going to the dentist?
Look, the truth is that dentists, periodontists and orthodontists know that you may be scared of visiting them. And they’re skilled in working with nervous patients to try to make the whole experience much less anxiety-inducing.
“There are a ton of ways that we can help you to not be fearful,” Dr. Ross says, “and there is so much benefit to having regular dental care that we really hope you won’t let your nerves keep you away.”
To learn more on this topic from Dr. Ross, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Keeping Your Mouth Healthy.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.