Most of us are aware that poor dental hygiene can lead to tooth decay, gum disease and bad breath – but not brushing your teeth could also have consequences for more serious illnesses. In this article, we will go beneath the plaque and tooth decay to investigate further what other health conditions are affected by poor dental health.
In 2010, researchers from New York University (NYU) concluded that there is a link between gum inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease, after reviewing 20 years of data on the association.
However, the number of participants in the NYU study was fairly small. The researchers analyzed data from 152 subjects enrolled in the Glostrop Aging Study – a study looking at psychological, medical and oral health in Danish men and women. The study spanned a 20-year period and ended in 1984, when the subjects were all over the age of 70.
Comparing cognitive function at ages 50 and 70, the NYU team found that gum disease at the age of 70 was strongly associated with low scores for cognitive function.
Although this study took into account potentially confounding factors like obesity, cigarette smoking and tooth loss unrelated to gum inflammation, there was still a strong association between low DST score and gum inflammation.
In 2013, UK-based researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) built on the findings of this study, by comparing brain samples from 10 living patients with Alzheimer’s with 10 brain samples from people who did not have the disease.
Analysis showed that a bacterium – Porphyromonas gingivalis – was present in the Alzheimer’s brain samples but not in the samples from the brains of people who did not have Alzheimer’s. What was interesting was that P. gingivalis is usually associated with chronic gum disease.
The team followed up this research in 2014 with a new mouse study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Medical News Today.
The published work confirmed P. gingivalis placed in the mouths of mice finds its way to the brain once gum disease becomes established first.
A research team from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, were the first to report strong evidence on a link between gum disease and pancreatic cancer, back in 2007.
The type of gum inflammation associated with pancreatic cancer in the study was periodontitis, which affects the tissue that support the teeth and can cause loss of bone around the base of the teeth.
The other main kind of gum disease – gingivitis; where the tissue around the teeth becomes inflamed – was not linked to increased cancer risk. However, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis if persistent. Gingivitis happens when bacteria in the plaque around the base of the teeth build up due to bad dental hygiene
Perhaps more well established is the association between dental hygiene and heart disease.
In 2008, MNT reported on research from joint teams at the University of Bristol in the UK and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, who found that people with bleeding gums from poor dental hygiene could be increasing their risk of heart disease.
The researchers found that heart disease risk increased because – in people who have bleeding gums – bacteria from the mouth is able to enter the bloodstream and stick to platelets, which can then form blood clots, interrupting the flow of blood to the heart and triggering a heart attack.
“The mouth is probably the dirtiest place in the human body,” said Dr. Steve Kerrigan from the Royal College of Surgeons, explaining that there are up to 700 different types of bacteria co-existing in our mouths.
Several researchers from Bristol University investigated how these bacteria interact with platelets by mimicking the pressure inside the blood vessels and the heart. They found that the bacteria use the platelets as a defense mechanism.
By clumping the platelets together, the bacteria are able to completely surround themselves. This platelet armor shields the bacteria from attack by immune cells and makes them less detectable to antibiotics.
In conclusion, although some of the associations we have looked at in this article are still under investigation, good dental hygiene remains important for lowering risk of a variety of conditions.
The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) recommend that we brush for 2 minutes, twice daily. The ADHA guidelines also stress the importance of flossing daily and rinsing with mouthwash.