Once upon a time, if you said that conditions in the mouth could have any kind of impact on whole body health, folks might have looked at you funny. Because of the historic divide between dentistry and medicine, the mouth was long treated almost as if it didn’t belong to the body at all. And in some respects, it still is.

But science continues to illuminate just how false an idea that is.

Consider a study published last fall in Arthritis & Rheumatology, which suggests that the oral bacteria involved in gum disease may be the reason why people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have a higher risk of atherosclerosis – a condition which, like RA, is associated with periodontitis. (Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and hardening of the arteries. It’s also the typical cause of things like heart attacks and stroke.)

For the study, nearly 200 RA patients were given CT and ultrasound scans to evaluate the condition of their arteries. Blood samples from each were also tested for antibodies targeting oral pathogens such as P. gingivalis and A. actinomycetemocomitans (which we’ll call “Aa” for short).

The research team then looked for associations between those antibodies and heart health.

While they found no link between the P. gingivalis antibodies and atherosclerosis, they did find one between two types of Aa antibodies and all the arterial measurements they took except for carotid plaque.

When either of those two antibodies were present, the mean coronary artery calcification score – a measure of how much plaque is built up – was 90% higher than when they were absent. When present, they also

amplified the effect of swollen joints on coronary atherosclerosis, suggesting a role for treatment/prevention of periodontal disease in the prevention of [cardiovascular disease] in RA.

Certainly, more research is needed to confirm these findings. Yet we do know, for instance, that other research also suggests that regular dental care may reduce your risk of stroke and cardiovascular risk in general.

There’s certainly nothing to lose by taking good care of your teeth and gums through regular dental visits, good home hygiene, healthy eating, exercise, sufficient sleep, and the rest. But you do have something to lose without them: your teeth – the ultimate result of gum disease that goes unaddressed.

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