A toothache can cause a bad day, or it can lead to someone’s death. 26-year-old Vadim Kondratyuk died after being diagnosed with tooth infection. Vadim complained to his wife about a stubborn dental pain in the lower left side of his mouth. The ache subsided shortly after taking antibiotics and pain medication, until it got worse. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors gave him stronger antibiotics and put him on dialysis. However, the infection had spread to his blood and lungs, and a few days later, Vadim drew his last breath.
Within the last couple of years, several studies have emerged trying to prove the existence of a connection between oral health and our overall health. As to the nature of these connections, most findings aren’t clear about the cause-and-effect relationships of the mouth and the body.
However, one thing is clear: oral health is connected to the body’s systems, and neglecting the state of your mouth would be putting the rest of your body at risk – and vice versa.
The following studies show how these links manifest and come about:
Gum Disease Linked to Heart Disease
People with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease. The risk increases for those with high cholesterol. The researchers attribute the connection to bacteria and inflammation.
Bacteria found in the gum tissue break down the gums and the underlying tissue, which causes inflammation. While brushing or chewing, bacteria enter the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the circulatory system. Worst case scenario, the bacteria contribute to the development of heart disease.
Inflammation is our natural response to infection. As bacteria travel from our mouth to other parts of the body, it’s possible that it triggers a similar response that causes arterial plaque to build up. This buildup contributes to coronary heart disease.
In other instances, scientists found oral bacteria in the fatty deposits of people with atherosclerosis. These deposits have been known to narrow or clog arteries, triggering heart attack or stroke.
Scientists are still investigating on the root problem. While they do, one thing is for certain – gum disease and heart disease are connected.
Tooth Loss Linked to Stroke
Two studies from 2002 and 2014 examined the link between tooth loss and stroke.
The 2002 research was a 12-year study published in the Journal of American Heart Association. The researchers studied 41,380 men – mostly white dentists, osteopathic physicians, veterinarians who were aged 40 to 75 when they entered the study.
According to findings, men with 17 to 24 teeth at the start of the study had a 57% higher risk of ischemic stroke than those with 25 to 32 teeth. The risk is even greater for men with 11 to 16 teeth, which showed a 76% greater chance of having ischemic stroke.
Researchers considered if the link could be due to diet, such as consumption of vegetables and fruits. They made the supposition that with fewer teeth, people are less inclined to eat these healthy foods, which in turn, increase their stroke risk. However, the findings of the study suggested that dietary factors didn’t appear to play a significant role to explain the link between stroke and tooth loss.
Meanwhile, the 2014 cross-sectional study looked into 410,939 participants, who were asked to disclose their incidence of stroke and tooth loss. The results revealed that the higher the number of teeth lost, the higher the odds for stroke. Although the link can be considered weak, researchers concluded that tooth loss had a potential positive association with stroke.
People with Gum Disease Likelier to Develop Alzheimer’s Disease
People suffering from gum disease had a 70% higher chance of having dementia, reveals a Taiwanese study. The researchers found that a long history of chronic periodontitis, an advanced form of gum disease, could have a small but significant effect on the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
One in 100 participants with periodontitis went on to develop Alzheimer’s, and although the connection seemed weak and unclear, it was considered statistically significant.
The researchers couldn’t tell whether the gum disease was triggered by poor dental hygiene, a possible result of diminished faculties in the early stages of undiagnosed Alzheimer’s, or the other way around.
The research was a retrospective cohort study, where researchers examined data from the national health database. They used the database to find patients who had chronic periodontitis, and then checked if some of these patients developed Alzheimer’s later in life, comparing them with patients who did not suffer from chronic periodontitis. They used a random sample of 1 million people, only 4.5% of the entire database.
Although this piece of research wasn’t strong or definite enough to provide a solid finding, it was an interesting attempt to identify a possible link between two seemingly disjointed conditions.
Connection of Oral bacteria and Respiratory Infection
The next study explores the possible link between oral bacteria and respiratory infection. The mouth is host to various species of bacteria, thanks to its favorable temperature and humidity. These build-ups can manifest as dental plaque biofilms, which can lead to gum disease.
Oral bacterial, particularly those associated with gum disease, have been linked to agents that cause other illnesses, including respiratory diseases. It is not clearly understood how one causes the other, however a few theories have been proposed to explain the link between these two conditions.
According to one theory, salivary enzymes linked to periodontal disease may alter the mucosal surfaces along the respiratory tract, thus enabling the formation of pathogens.
Another theory states that some enzymes resulting from gum disease could damage salivary films. This makes it harder to eliminate bacteria and increases the chance of them getting breathed into the lungs.
What Does This All Mean?
Scientists once reported that “brushing twice a day can save you from a heart attack”. While the statement sounds over-simplified, it’s not too far-fetched an idea.
None of the studies mentioned were able to establish the cause-and-effect relationship between oral health and the body’s systems – which could be the bottom line that most people want to know.
What the studies do achieve, however, is make a compelling case for positive oral hygiene habits. Their efforts brought light upon the phenomenon that whatever happens to your mouth can or may affect your heart, lungs, or brain – or vice versa.
In most of the studies mentioned, the conclusion is a recommendation to invest in one’s oral health. For gum disease sufferers, the advice is to receive the appropriate treatment as soon as possible. Some cases of gum disease are undiagnosed, so experts advise seeing your dentist regularly, and practicing proper brushing and flossing outside of the dentist’s chair.
Seeing how the mouth is intertwined with the rest of us, our investment in oral health is worth every second and every dime.