Poor Oral Health Can Mean Worse Systemic Health, New Study Reminds

by | Mar 26, 2024 | General Health, Oral Health

In case you needed a reminder of just how important your teeth and gums are to your overall health, check out a study that just dropped in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA).

Its authors set out to explore the link between gum disease and overall mortality via people’s self-reports on their oral health. They used two big sets of data for this – one from the Women’s Health Study and one from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

In the Women’s Health Study, women who said they had gum disease in 2006 were more likely to report having worsening dental health, bone loss, or gum treatment by 2018.

man holding painful jawPeople who rated their own dental health as fair or poor were more likely to also have heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis (weak bones).

In the National Health Survey data, people who rated their oral health as fair or poor had a higher risk of dying from any cause compared to those with better self-rated oral health.

Overall, the researchers found that those patients who seldom saw a dentist, who were inconsistent flossers, and who reported fair or poor oral health may run a higher risk of all-cause mortality.

Of course, the link between gum disease and systemic health problems is well established. Conditions linked to periodontal disease include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, mental health issues, chronic kidney disease, and more.

So while the results of the current study aren’t especially surprising, they do offer a powerful reminder of the dynamic relationship between oral and overall health, as well as the need to care for teeth and gums alike. Here’s what that care includes:

  1. Good nutrition. This means focusing on meals made at home from real food and limiting ultra-processed foods, sugars, and other fermentable carbs. It means fresh produce; meat, fish, and fowl; legumes; whole grains; and healthy fats.
  2. Good home hygiene. Brushing twice daily with a fluoride-free paste is only the most basic practice. Interdental cleaning at least once a day with floss, interdental brushes, or an oral irrigator is also needed. Oil pulling or applying ozonated oils can give your oral health another boost.
  3. Exercise. Studies have shown that those who exercise regularly tend to have healthier gums than those who lead more sedentary lives. Sitting still may raise your risk of caries (tooth decay), as well. The general guideline for adults is a total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, along with 2 days of muscle strengthening activity. You’ll find guidelines for kids here.
  4. Enough good quality sleep. That means at least 7 hours a night for adults. There’s some evidence that sleep debt is second only to smoking as a risk factor for gum disease. (Children and teens need more.) If you have sleep apnea, seek treatment, know that CPAP alternatives such as NightLase and oral appliance therapy are available.
  5. Don’t smoke, chew, or vape. These all raise your risk of gum disease and oral cancers. Vaping brings along additional concerns due to components in the devices and ingredients in some vape fluids, which may expose you to heavy metals and other toxins.
  6. Address stress. Along with an unhealthy diet, chronic stress fuels chronic inflammation – a hallmark of gum disease and all the systemic health problems that it’s been linked to. It can also contribute to clenching, grinding, and other habits that can damage the teeth and jaw joints over time, as well as cause the gums to recede, which can leave teeth sensitive and more vulnerable to decay.
  7. See your dentist regularly. For most people, an exam and cleaning every 6 months is enough. If you have gum disease, though, more frequent visits are called for. Any emerging problems can be identified early, when they’re easier – and less expensive – to treat in a minimally invasive way. Regular cleanings will also help prevent tartar buildup so it’s easier for you to keep your teeth really clean through home hygiene.

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