We all know why the dentist wants us to brush and floss regularly, but someday soon our family physician may be recommending this too, albeit for a different reason. Recent studies are starting to build a link between your oral health and other conditions in the body, such as heart disease.
Physicians have long been concerned about bacteria in the mouth traveling to the heart or artificial joints and causing infections. Anyone who has ever been told to take an antibiotic before dental treatment is aware of this. Also, periodontal (gum) disease in pregnant women has been strongly linked to premature birth and low birth weight babies.
But can an unhealthy mouth be connected to other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke? As of right now the research isn’t conclusive, but enough evidence exists to warrant further study and look for a definitive link.
And what might that link be? Quite simply, inflammation. Inflammation is divided into two types: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the initial redness and swelling when you injure yourself, like when your shin hits the coffee table or you catch a cold. If all goes well with the healing process, the body repairs itself or removes the invader, the inflammation goes down, and everything returns to normal. Chronic inflammation is when the body tries to repair itself but can’t, either because it is overwhelmed or is somehow compromised, like if you kept kicking the coffee table every day, or your immune system can’t fight off the cold due to poor health.
In an effort to win the battle, the immune system gets cranked up and several new proteins are activated. Some of the more common ones you may have heard of are interleukin 1 and C-reactive protein. Now if these proteins simply stayed where they’re supposed to stay and did what they’re supposed to do, everything would be OK. The problem is that they travel throughout the body and cause effects in other places, and it’s usually destructive. Given enough time, their destructive effects can increase the risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other serious conditions.
So what does this have to do with your mouth? If you’ve ever had bleeding after brushing or flossing, that is acute inflammation. It probably won’t lead to any serious disease, but it is the first step in a more sinister process. If your dentist has ever said you need a special cleaning because of deep pockets in the gums or signs of bone loss, that is chronic inflammation.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US. If something as simple as good oral care can help with prevention, I can’t think of a simpler, more cost-effective way to “defang” this killer. Come to think of it, I’m willing to bet your family physician brushes and flosses every day and sees the dentist every six months. Any takers?