Numerous studies have identified three ways oral disease can affect the health elsewhere in the body:
Pathological bacteria in periodontal disease can enter the body’s circulatory system through inflamed gums and travel throughout the body. As these bacteria travel, they may cause secondary infections or contribute to a disease process already underway in other tissues and organs.
Pathological bacteria in the gums enter the saliva. Each time you inhale, you aspirate bacteria laden water droplets into your lungs, potentially causing pulmonary infections and pneumonia – a serious problem for the elderly and people with generalized weakened immunity. Inflammatory mediators called ‘cytokines’ found in inflamed gums can also enter your saliva. They too get aspirated into the lungs, where they have inflammatory effects on the lower airway, contributing further to pulmonary complications.
Inflammation associated with periodontal disease can stimulate a second systemic inflammatory response somewhere else in the body or complicate other disease processes originating from inflammation, such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, orthopedic implant failure and complications of pregnancy. (Oral Systemic Connection, undated)
A systemic inflammatory response can develop, weakening the entire immune system.
Illustrated by Zach Turner – Medical Illustrator – Blue Motion Studios LLC
Untreated tooth decay and gum disease can interfere with breathing, tasting, eating, swallowing, sleeping, speaking and language development and can contribute to emotional stress as well. (Hein, 2012)
Pathological bacteria building up on the teeth make the gums prone to infection. The body’s immune system detects the infection and moves to attack it, causing inflammation in the gums. Over time, unless the infection is removed, the inflammation becomes chronic and releases chemicals that eat away at the gums and bone structure holding the teeth in place. Severe gum disease is called periodontitis and has deleterious effects throughout the body. A recent study found that people with serious gum disease were 40% more likely to have a chronic condition as well. (Barker, 2014)
Oral Health and Diabetes
People with the metabolic disease diabetes have high blood sugar levels, either because the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or because cells don’t respond adequately to the insulin that is produced. (Wikipedia, 2014)
Insulin is the hormone responsible for converting sugar into energy for the body. Periodontal inflammation in the mouth impairs insulin utilization and produces a two-way relationship in which high blood sugar provides ideal conditions for oral and other infections to grow. Fortunately, this means managing gum disease can help bring diabetes under control – and vice versa. (Barker, 2014)
Oral Health and Heart Disease
Inflammation in the mouth and heart disease are often found together. Approximately 91% of people with heart disease also have gum disease, compared to 66% with no heart disease. Inflamed blood vessels also allow less blood to get from the heart to the rest of the body, raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of fatty plaque breaking off a blood vessel’s wall and traveling to the heart of brain, causing a heart attack of stroke. (Barker, 2014)
Oral Health and Fetal Development
Premature and low birth weight infants often have serious health problems, such as lung and heart conditions, learning disorders. Poor oral health may play a role in this – infection and chronic inflammation seem to interfere with fetal development. (Barker, 2014)
Oral Health and Osteoporosis
Periodontitis erodes the jawbone while osteoporosis affects bone mass in the long bones of the body, yet studies have noted that women with osteoporosis have gum disease more often than those who do not. The thinking is that inflammation triggered by chronic gum inflammation weakens bones in other parts of the body. (Barker, 2014)
Oral Health and Other Conditions
Other mouth-body interactions are also currently under study (Barker, 2014):
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Treating gum disease has also been shown to reduce pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
Lung Conditions: Gum disease increase the amount of pathological bacteria in the lungs and may exacerbate pneumonia and chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease.
Obesity: Studies have found that gum disease progresses more quickly in the presence of higher body fat.
Magnitude of the Problem
75% of Americans have mild periodontal disease (gingivitis). Almost 30% show signs of more severe, chronic periodontitis. With researchers finding a definite connection between oral disease and systemic diseases and medical conditions elsewhere in the body, it has become quite clear that improving the health of our mouths helps our overall health. (Oral Systemic Connection, undated)