More than just a pretty smile, clean teeth and gums are a sign of total body health. And those painful sessions with the dental hygienist could save your life, new findings suggest.
Most people know that the tedium of good oral hygiene — regular brushing, flossing and trips to the dentist's office — reduces tartar, plaque, cavities, gingivitis and bone loss and helps the breath smell like roses.
But recent research shows that diabetes, low birth weight babies and heart disease are also linked to gum and bone disease in the mouth that can be prevented by teeth cleanings. Treating gum disease might even prevent heart attacks, a new study suggests.
"Systemically, visits to the dentist and hygienist may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and possibly heart attack, and can decrease the likelihood of tooth loss for diabetics," said Gwen Cohen-Brown, a dentist and lecturer for the New York State Department of Health.
The tooth-heart link
When people neglect to brush their teeth or floss, bacteria accumulate between the teeth. These bacteria can make their way into the blood stream.
"Certain bacteria present in the mouth may be related to clogging up the arteries by contributing to the plaque that builds on the walls of the arteries," said New York University oral microbiologist Walter Bretz.
And treating gum disease, or periodontal disease, can improve the long-term function of endothelial cells that line blood vessel walls, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center. With better performing endothelial cells, plaques that cause heart disease will decrease, diminishing the risk of triggering a heart attack.
The authors of the study, detailed in the March 1 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, estimate that severe periodontitis affects up to 1 percent of adults in the U.S., and as many as 80 percent of American adults have some form of periodontal disease.
Unclear pregnancy results
Periodontal disease is also quite common among pregnant women. Expectant mothers' gums react differently to the bacteria due to their increased levels of estrogen and progesterone. Women may experience swelling, bleeding or tenderness in the gum tissue.
Several studies have linked gum disease to an increased risk of giving birth to a premature and underweight baby.
Yet, an article published in a 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported that, although treatment of gum disease in pregnant women is safe and improves periodontal health, preterm birth and low birth-weight babies were unaffected by the treatment.
The jury is still out on whether a mother's unhealthy gums can affect her unborn baby, but scientists are learning more from a large clinical trial currently under way at the University of Minnesota, focusing on whether treating periodontal diseases in pregnant women may prevent preterm and low birth-weight babies.
Diabetes and dental health
Unlike the case for pregnancy, researchers have found direct links between gum disease and diabetes. Gum disease is known to increase the risk of diabetes, and vice versa.
Studies show that inflammatory periodontal diseases may increase insulin in the same way that obesity increases insulin.
Meanwhile, doctors recognize diabetes as an important risk factor for severe gum disease and infection that may result in the destruction of tissues and bone surrounding the tooth.
Taking care of teeth can combat complications of diabetes and may reduce inflammation throughout the body associated with diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
In addition to biannual visits with the dentist and hygienist, Cohen-Brown recommends patients brush after every meal, of course. If that's impossible, she said, brush in the morning and at night before bed, floss daily and stay away from carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods.
"When oral health improves, overall health improves," Cohen-Brown told LiveScience.