On May 25th, 2000, The Surgeon General released a report entitled Oral Health In America that indicated a “possible association between periodontal disease (gum disease) and diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart attacks and strokes.” Since that report, research continues to indicate a link between gum disease and systemic illnesses. In fact, in January 2007, The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that the results of a study showed a “relationship between pancreatic cancer and periodontal disease.”
At one time, periodontal disease was considered to be ‘just an infection in the mouth,’ affecting only the mouth and periodontium (the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth). But over the last ten years, research has shown that periodontal disease is like any other infection in the body…it can spread. In response to an infection, the body produces proteins called C-Reactive Protein (CRP) which “cause an irritation to blood vessel walls that ultimately leads to artery narrowing,” which can lead to cardiovascular disease, heart attack or stroke. In fact, patients with “severe periodontitis have been shown to be twice as likely to have a fatal heart attack and three times as likely to have a stroke” as patients who are not suffering from gum disease. Researchers are also reporting a “bi-directional interaction between oral and systemic health,” which means that periodontal disease can lead to systemic diseases or it can be an indicator of them.
The implications of the connection between periodontal disease and systemic diseases are so strong that medical and dental insurance companies are beginning to provide better periodontal treatment coverage in their policies. In fact, some health insurance companies are monitoring patients who have “complex health problems to ensure that they’re receiving routine dental care as a part of their overall healthcare regimen.”
The good news in all of this is that periodontal disease can be prevented! Good daily oral hygiene habits that consist of brushing at least twice a day and flossing once a day (preferably before bedtime) along with regular dental checkups and professional dental cleanings can prevent gum disease or reverse it if it does get started.
There are certain risk factors that raise the probability of periodontal disease–such as poor oral hygiene habits, smoking, or health problems such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease or diabetes. But even with these factors, good oral hygiene and regular dental visits, along with professional dental cleanings, can maintain, monitor and improve oral health, which can have a positive effect on a patient’s health overall.
Those with a predisposition to periodontal disease, (which according to the American Academy of Periodontology is approximately 30 percent of the population) are six times more likely to develop periodontal disease than normal. In these cases, genetic testing can be done to identify this susceptibility whereby dentists are able to perform early interventions and treatments to prevent the disease from getting a start or stopping it in its very early stages.
Most importantly, it’s imperative that periodontal disease or the possibility of this disease be taken very seriously since it can negatively impact much more than just the teeth and gums.