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Gingivitis Threatens Your Health

December 14, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Most people think of their mouths as a separate system. Mouths have dentists, not doctors. They’re made up of teeth and gums, not organs. Most folks don’t think their mouth really affects the rest of the body or their health. Only one problem—that’s not true at all. Your mouth’s health is integrally connected to the rest of your body. And when your mouth is unhealthy, it affects the rest of you as well.

Is Gum Disease Killing You?

This is a bigger problem than you might think. Almost half of all people over 30 have gingivitis (gum disease). And about 70% of the 65+ crowd suffers from periodontal disease.

That doesn’t just make for bad breath, achy teeth, or sore, bleeding gums. It can directly lead to major health problems.

One study has linked bleeding gums to pancreatic cancer. Another study finds certain mouth bacteria might cause—or exacerbate—Alzheimer’s disease.

Various mouth maladies have been connected to diabetes, dementia, many types of cancer, heart disease, and strokes.

This is a relatively new field of study, so we’re not yet sure what the connections are.

But we’re seeing lots of evidence that there is a connection. Indeed, the link is conclusive enough that many health insurance companies are offering extra periodontal preventative services to anyone with a risky condition, like diabetes.

Health insurance companies aren’t run by dummies. They saw a 40% savings in diabetic patients who had their mouths well-tended.

One of the strongest likely links relates to one of the most common bugaboos in health: inflammation. Periodontal diseases almost always present with inflammation. If you’ve ever gone too long without brushing, you can feel it. That inflammation is what makes the delicate tissue of the gums bleed.

And inflammation in the mouth appears to be linked to inflammation throughout the rest of your body. And, as you well know, inflammation is one of the most common causes of disease.

Inflamed tissue gets damaged. That damage can lead to decreased function of cells, sluggish organs, and DNA errors.

We haven’t yet found the smoking gun—the inflammation in your mouth might just be a shared symptom of something deeper infecting your body, through your mouth.

All of which is to say, we don’t yet understand the direct causes of shared damage. But we do know, with little doubt, that there is a strong, well-established connection.

That means, if you want to have a long, healthy life, you need to take care of your mouth.

How to get squeaky-clean teeth—and that squeaky-clean bill of health

Gum disease and other problems of the mouth start innocently enough. It all stems from the filmy plaque that coats your teeth.

That plaque makes for a lovely home for bacteria. Just as your gut has a microbiome, so does your mouth. And, just like in your gut, there’s an ongoing battle between good and bad bacteria.

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So, while a clean mouth promotes good bacterial growth—plaque encourages damaging bad bacteria.

It’s thought that the bad bacteria that grow in your plaque may well hitch a ride in your bloodstream, appearing in and damaging your heart, your colon, and perhaps your breast and pancreas as well.

The best way to stop this infecting agent is to eliminate the offending bacteria at the start.

Which means keeping your mouth free of plaque.

Of course, some plaque growth is inevitable, and certainly isn’t cause for alarm.

It’s only when plaque is undisturbed, allowed to harden, and set up thriving colonies of harmful bacteria that you need to worry.

Luckily, defeating this potential scourge is simple. You probably know how to do it already.

The minimum you need to do is brush twice a day—morning and evening—for at least two minutes, covering all parts of your mouth.

That means both your upper and lower teeth, on both sides.

But it also means your tongue and the inside of your cheeks as well.

In addition—despite what you may have heard—flossing is essential for oral health as well. There’s simply no better way to get between teeth, and disrupt any budding plaque colonies.

You should floss at least once a day. Though if you want a gold star, brush and floss after each meal.

If you eliminate any pieces of food right after eating, plaque and harmful bacteria will never get a chance to grow.

That does all the regular work of keeping you safe from cavities and painful root canals.

But it also makes for a longer, healthier life in all ways. One study even found daily flossing could add over six years to your life.

So forget about the division between oral hygiene and the rest of your body. They are linked in more ways than we yet understand. And taking care of your mouth, truly, is taking care of your health.

References

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