Now, new research shows that, in fact, serious oral health problems are associated with an increased risk of dying from all causes.
The study followed 76,188 individuals in the French healthcare system. They ranged in age from 16 to 89 years, and all had undergone medical and dental exams. The patients were followed up after an average of 3.4 years.
During the study period, 370 of the original participants had died – 184 of them due to cancer. Excluding cancer and patients with cardiovascular issues revealed that another 129 had died from other causes.
The researchers then used statistical analysis to determine if various oral health problems were more commonly seen in the mouth exams of the patients who had died compared to those were still alive.
The analysis showed that high levels of dental plaque, calculus, and gingivitis were more common in the patients who had died. Higher mortality rates were also seen with patients who had fewer than 10 remaining natural teeth or less than five functional tooth pairs that worked well for chewing.
Many of the deceased patients suffered from more than one oral health problem, and the risk of death increased in a stepwise fashion for each additional condition.
When only the cancer deaths were analyzed, the researchers found that dental plaque and gingival inflammation increased the risk of death from cancer. No effect was seen with respect to calculus or missing teeth.
The 184 cancer deaths weren’t enough to analyze effects of the poor oral health on specific cancers. Previous research has suggested that tooth loss may increase mortality from pancreatic, oral, and digestive system cancers.
The authors were also unable to statistically analyze the association between poor oral health and cardiovascular mortality. The average age of the participants was just too low. Even if heart disease is already present, younger people are less likely to die from it.
It’s important to note that this kind of statistical analysis can only show an association between conditions. It can’t say whether poor oral health harms overall health or vice versa – or even whether the two mutually reinforce each other. Additional data and analysis is necessary to answer this question.
One possibility that the researchers floated was that poor oral health may lead to less healthy diets due to chewing difficulties. Those who have trouble chewing tend to eat less fiber.
On the other hand, poor dietary habits tend to exert their effect only after a lifetime of poor choices. The three-year period of this study may be too short for this to be an issue.
A healthy diet is a choice. And with proper adjustments, it is possible to eat healthy even with impaired teeth.
A more likely culprit is something that’s fueled by (among other things) poor dietary choices: chronic inflammation. We know that periodontal inflammation – marked by red, puffy, bleeding gums – worsens many other conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. Oral inflammation also promotes the growth and spread of cancer.
The researchers emphasize the need for more analysis of the effect of oral health on mortality. In the meantime, it’s essential to take care of your teeth not only to maintain your quality of life but your life itself!