You know you should brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss regularly, but many of us slack off on our regular dental care. According to a 2018 survey in the Journal of the American Dental Association, 42 percent of US adults over 30 have periodontitis, or gum disease. But the effects of such dental issues aren’t limited to your teeth and gums. “If someone has periodontal disease, it creates a less healthy environment: Inflamed, irritated, and swollen gum tissues aren’t as strong a barrier to bacteria and toxins as they otherwise would be if they were healthy,” says Matthew Messina, DDS, clinic director of Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry in Columbia, Ohio, and an American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson. So, problems that start in your oral cavity may be associated with diseases in other places in your body.
Science is still determining the cause-and-effect relationship between poor dental hygiene and diseases, but “new evidence shows that the mouth and the rest of the body are interconnected,” says John L. Pfail, DDS, chairman of the Department of Dentistry for The Mount Sinai Health System in New York. “Think of the bloodstream as a busy roadway to other organs in the body. It is not surprising that there is more evidence every day connecting the mouth with the rest of the body.”
Even though the explanation for these links isn’t yet clearly defined, it’s another reason to keep up with preventative dental health. The ADA advises you to follow your dentists’ individual recommendations; in general, brush your teeth twice daily, clean between your teeth daily, limit sugary foods and drinks, and see your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings.
Read on to find out how taking care of your teeth may benefit your body’s overall health, as well as the signs of disease your teeth can reveal.
istock/stevanovicigorYou may lower your risk of heart attack
Dr. Pfail says that heart problems may be connected to oral bacteria that ends up in the bloodstream. “The link between dental health and cardiovascular issues is generally due to bacteria, as disease-causing oral bacteria can spread to other parts of the human body, including the heart, via the bloodstream,” he says. “Bacteria can travel and lodge in different areas of the body. This bacteria can cause infections within the linings of the heart, along with other vascular conditions that put people at greater risk of heart attack and stroke.”
As the body creates an inflammatory response to try to heal, says Dr. Messina, chronic inflammation becomes the “touchpoint” in which oral and systemic health are connected. “People who have untreated periodontal disease are at a two to four times greater risk of having a heart attack,” he says. “Something as simple as having your periodontal disease treated and getting a healthier mouth reduces the risk of heart disease.”
toysf400/ShutterstockYou may reduce your risk of stroke
Both Dr. Pfail and Dr. Messina say the same mechanisms that appear to lower heart disease risk may lower the risk of stroke as well. “We get bacteria in the bloodstream [from gum disease], and those have been found in the plaques that are found inside blood vessels that are related to strokes and heart attacks,” Dr. Messina says. A 2019 study from Taiwan in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology showed that patients with periodontitis had a higher risk of ischemic stroke and a lower 10-year stroke survival rate than people without periodontitis. In addition, getting treatment for periodontal disease actually lowered the stroke risk.
Syda Productions/ShutterstockYou’ll lower the effects of high blood sugar
One of the things you never knew about type 2 diabetes? The disease seems to have a reciprocal relationship with dental problems: Dental problems may contribute to type 2 diabetes, and type 2 diabetes may contribute to dental problems. According to the National Institutes of Health, high glucose (sugar) in uncontrolled diabetes is present in saliva; and this glucose can encourage the growth of bacteria that can lead to gum disease. People with diabetes may also experience dry mouth, which puts them at greater risk for cavities; and high glucose also promotes the growth of a fungal infection called thrush. “Any oral health problems are exacerbated by diabetes,” Dr. Pfail says. “Gum disease and higher levels of bacteria in the mouth are bad because diabetes affects not only healing but decreases a person’s ability to fight off infections.”
At the same time, “the diabetic’s ability to control their blood sugar is much better if their periodontal disease is under control,” Dr. Messina says. “A healthier mouth reduces the poor control of blood sugar in a diabetic.”
Bogdan Sonjachnyj/ShutterstockYou may improve metabolic syndrome
The condition known as metabolic syndrome is actually a group of risk factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes; they include high blood sugar, high blood fats (cholesterol or triglycerides), abdominal obesity, and high blood pressure. So if periodontal disease is associated with heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes risk, is it also connected to metabolic syndrome overall? Possibly. “Metabolic syndrome and periodontal disease have been linked through a common pathophysiological [abnormal] pathway,” which includes inflammation, says Uchenna Akosa, DDS, director of Rutgers Health University Dental Associates in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Some studies suggest that periodontal disease should be considered as part of metabolic syndrome. But, more studies are needed to establish a relationship between metabolic syndrome and periodontal disease, as the underlying biological mechanisms showing a relationship has not been proven.” Find out the signs you might have metabolic syndrome.
You may have less chance of lung diseases
BENCHAMAT/ShutterstockFor lung diseases including pneumonia, the connection may be obvious. “There’s a direct ability to inhale bacteria from the mouth into the lungs,” says Dr. Messina. This can lead to bacterial infections such as pneumonia. In a pioneering program at Salem VA Medical Center’s community living center—published in the journal Applied Nursing Research—simply brushing (or having nurses brush) teeth reduced rates of pneumonia by 92 percent.
What’s more, for people who already have respiratory conditions, says Dr. Pfail, “recent research has suggested that oral diseases such as periodontal disease can exacerbate respiratory infections, when bacteria from the back of the mouth and upper throat travel into the respiratory tract.”
You may detect osteoporosis early
Don’t neglect your regular dental visits, which are also an important part of oral care—they may uncover a silent sign you have osteoporosis. According to the NIH, dental X-rays may have benefits as a screening tool for osteoporosis, because the bone loss that occurs with the condition also affects the teeth and the bones around the mouth. Catching osteoporosis early may benefit dental health because, according to the NIH, women with osteoporosis are three times more likely to experience tooth loss. There may also be a link between osteoporosis and periodontal disease because bone issues make people more susceptible to oral bacteria.
You may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Research suggests that oral bacteria may end up in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients—though no one is sure how, and more studies are needed to clarify the link. Researchers have found a connection between gum disease and Alzheimer’s disease—bacteria that cause gingivitis can move from the mouth to the brain, Dr. Akosa says. “The bacteria produce a protein that destroys nerve cells in the brain, leading to loss of memory and Alzheimer’s.” However, she says, “the bacteria alone do not cause Alzheimer’s, but the presence raises the risk for developing the disease substantially, and are also implicated in a more rapid progression of the disease.”
Other studies, such as one from Taiwan published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy in 2017, supports the link between Alzheimer’s and periodontitis. So, taking care of your teeth could be one of the 15 things that may help prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease. “If there’s a chance that better oral health, having your teeth cleaned, can improve memory function, why would we not?” Dr. Messina says. “I’m certainly not going to promise anything, but there’s enough of a connection to say that it makes sense.”
Davizro Photography / Shutterstock You may cut your chance of cancer
The evidence of a connection between periodontitis and cancer keeps growing: A 2018 study from Johns Hopkins and Tufts Universities published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute followed nearly 7,500 patients over 15 years: Those who started with severe gum disease had a 24 percent increased chance of later having cancer, particularly lung (even among those who never smoked) and colorectal cancers. The potential pathway, currently being explored in studies like a 2018 paper published in the British Journal of Cancer, is that bacteria from the mouth may contribute to tumors in the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.
In addition, cancer patients may also be more at risk for poor dental health as they have diminished resources for fighting off infection, says Dr. Messina. “Chemotherapy weakens the body’s immune system, and thus cancer patients are at increased risk for oral infections, as well as a delayed or difficult time healing,” Dr. Pfail says. Radiation also may damage glands that can lead to dry mouth and an increased risk of cavities, he says. “It is imperative that when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he understands that preventing and managing his oral health before, during, and after cancer treatment will be very important in maintaining his overall oral health.”
DimaBerlin/ShutterstockYou could improve rheumatoid arthritis
In the case of the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis (RA), “there’s a clear inflammatory link because arthritis is a disease of inflammation,” Dr. Messina says. “Anything we can do to lower the body’s overall load of inflammation is where treatment of periodontal disease comes in: Fewer bacteria reduces the amount of overall body inflammatory response, which will reduce joint pain and the other aspects of arthritis.”
But Dr. Akosa says because cause and effect haven’t been established, it’s hard to say which comes first. “Some studies say people with RA have eight times the odds of developing gum disease; others say the bacterium—Porphyromonas gingivalis—that causes periodontal disease increases the severity of RA; yet other studies suggest that P. gingivalis may be a possible trigger for autoimmune disease in a subset of RA patients,” she says. Whatever the case, though, “both RA and gum disease have inflammation in common,” Dr. Akosa says. “Controlling the inflammation through better dental health could play a role in reducing the incidence and severity of RA.”
Monet_3k/ShutterstockYou could reduce the chance and severity of kidney disease
Research has shown there’s a link between kidney disease and dental health; also, poor dental health appears to worsen kidney disease. In a Journal of Periodontology study of African Americans, who are at increased risk of kidney trouble, those with severe periodontal disease had a four-fold increased rate of developing kidney disease.
In another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology, the mortality rate of those with kidney disease in a 14-year period increased from 32 to 41 percent with the addition of periodontal disease. “Tooth decay and gum disease can lead to infections that can cause problems for people with kidney disease,” Dr. Akosa says. Plus, “people with kidney disease have weakened immune systems and are more susceptible to infections from caries and gingivitis.”
karen roach/ShutterstockYou could reduce your chance of preterm birth
It’s especially important for pregnant women to take care of their teeth, because not only do hormonal changes make them more vulnerable to oral problems—the CDC reports that 60 to 75 percent of pregnant women have gingivitis—but gum issues could be linked to preterm birth and low birth weight, according to the CDC. “Sometimes women think that because they’re pregnant they shouldn’t come to the dentist, and that actually is not true,” Dr. Messina says. “Having your teeth cleaned and being in good oral health is tremendously valuable for the baby.”