We recently stumbled across a kind of interesting study on how patients understand gum disease and how dentists address it.
A fairly impressive 74% of the 224 patients who took part said that they understood gingival health to be very important. (“Gingiva” is the clinical name for the gums.) Yet only 2% actually had healthy gums.
One-third were diagnosed with gingivitis. This is mild gum disease, which is reversible and typically marked by red, puffy gums and bleeding when brushing or flossing. Many failed to recognize such symptoms in their own mouths.
Even more patients – 56% – were diagnosed with periodontitis, or severe gum disease. As the infection worsens, both the soft gum tissue and supporting bone begin to be destroyed. As tissue is lost, teeth become wobbly in their sockets. Eventually, some may be recommended for extraction – if they don’t fall out first.
Gum disease isn’t just a dental problem, though. It raises your risk of many systemic health problems. Less than 20% of the patients in the survey knew this. And while these were British patients, we expect results would be similar for American patients.
Of course, our own patients – and regular readers of this blog – are aware that oral and whole body health are inseparable; that mouth and body are linked both physically and energetically; that investing in oral health is an investment in total health.
Here are the conditions that scientific research, so far, has shown to be associated with gum disease:
- Heart disease – Gum disease can increase inflammation and bacteria in the bloodstream, which may contribute to clogged arteries. It also raises the risk of heart attack and endocarditis (inflammation of the heart lining).
- Stroke – Gum disease can double the risk of stroke. The bacteria and inflammation associated with gum disease may travel to the brain.
- Diabetes – Gum disease is not only more common in people with diabetes; it’s also more severe. Poor blood sugar control appears to worsen gum disease.
- Metabolic syndrome – This combination of obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and dyslipidemia (elevated fat levels in the blood) have long been associated with gum disease. Obesity alone has been linked, as well.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – Studies link moderate to severe gum disease with a higher prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis. The bacteria involved in gum disease may play a role in worsening inflammation.
- Respiratory infections – Gum disease increases the risk for respiratory infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Bacteria from the mouth can be inhaled into the lungs.
- Cancer – Gum disease has been associated with increased risk for cancers of the pancreas, kidney, blood, and colon.
- Pregnancy complications – Hormonal changes during pregnancy can worsen gum disease and increase the risk for preterm delivery and low birth weight babies. Gum disease also raises the risk of preeclampsia.
- Erectile dysfunction – Men with severe gum disease are more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction. Inflammation is thought to play a role.
- Kidney disease – Moderate to severe gum disease is linked to higher rates of chronic kidney disease and decreased kidney function. Inflammation may again be the connection.
- Cognitive decline – Gum disease raises the risk of cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. Tooth loss is a common sign of elevated risk.
- Mental health disorders – Depression and anxiety in particular have been associated with gum disease.
- Osteoporosis – Decreased bone density and a higher risk of fractures are common in people with gum disease.
- Autoimmune disorders – Inflamed gums have been linked with disorders such as Crohn’s and lupus. Such conditions lower the body’s defenses against infection, making gum disease more likely.
We don’t share this long list to freak anyone out, stirring up fear of a future of poor health. Rather, we present it as a good reminder of the oral/systemic connection and – we hope – motivation to do the things necessary to maintain healthy teeth and gums.
Gum disease is something to take seriously. In fact, doing so might just save your life.