By Hope Katz Gibbs
“The eye is the window of the soul, the mouth the door,” professed American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805-1873).
It has taken a few hundred years, but researchers have recently proven the mouth is actually the door to a healthy body. The key, scientists insist, is a set of healthy gums.
Unfortunately, too many Americans aren’t minding their mouths. The result is periodontal disease.
Who is at risk?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in every two Americans adults aged 30 and over has periodontal disease — that’s 64.7 million American adults. In those 65 and older, prevalence rates rise to 70.1 percent.
Gum disease is most prevalent in:
- Men (56.4 percent) vs. women (38.4 percent)
- Mexican Americans (66.7 percent) compared to other races
- Smokers (64.2 percent)
- Those below the poverty line (65.4 percent)
- Those with less than a high school education (66.9 percent)
Additionally, a study headed by Dr. Lillian Bensley of the Washington State Department of Health, Office of Epidemiology, showed people with periodontal disease are 1.4 times more likely to have chronic conditions. Those with bum gums are 1.5 times more likely to develop arthritis and liver disease.
How does chronic inflammatory gum disease begin?
- When bacteria build up on the teeth, gums are prone to infection.
- The immune system moves in to attack the infection, causing the gums to become inflamed.
- Chemicals in the body released to reduce that inflammation eat away at the bones — including bones that hold the teeth in place.
- The result is periodontal disease, which can wreak havoc on the rest of the body.
Understanding the gum-body connection
Scientists have discovered the link between periodontal disease and these ailments:
- Diabetes: When gums get chronically inflamed, it’s harder for the body to control blood sugar and insulin. This enables infections to grow — especially gum infections. The good news, researchers believe, is that by getting a handle on periodontal disease the impact of diabetes can be mitigated.
- Heart Disease: Statistics suggest that as many as 91 percent of people with heart disease have periodontal disease. Smoking, an unhealthy diet, and excess weight, cause blood vessels to become inflamed. This causes less blood to travel from the heart to various parts of the body, causing blood pressure to rise. There’s also a risk that fatty plaque can break off the wall of a blood vessel and travel to the heart or brain, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Osteoporosis:Although a bit controversial, some studies have found that women with osteoporosis have gum disease more often than those without it. Bone loss is the issue. While researchers know that periodontal disease weakens the jawbone, they are now investigating whether it also weakens other bones in the body, and in turn causes osteoporosis.
- Bacterial pneumonia:The mouth can serve as a reservoir for a bacterial infection that travels to the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.
- Low birth weight:Because infection and inflammation can interfere with a baby’s development in the womb, researchers believe gum disease could cause premature labor. Additionally, since tooth decay is a transmissible infection from mom to newborn, that baby could be susceptible to dental decay as they mature.
Mind your mouth, and improve your health
How can you keep from falling pray to periodontal disease?
- Don’t smoke.According to the CDC, a smoker’s risk of developing severe gum disease is three times higher than someone who doesn’t light up. The problem is that cigarettes cause blood vessels to constrict, which interferes with the ability of the gums to ward off infection. And because smoking can interfere with potential treatment options, avoiding cigarettes might speed up the healing process.
- Keep your weight under control. It appears that periodontal disease progresses more quickly when there’s more body fat, which links obesity to gum disease.
- Check your meds.Prescriptions taken for an array of conditions may have unintended consequences — especially dry mouth, which can increase the risk for dental decay, oral yeast infections, among other oral infections.
- Everyday, brush twice, floss once. And, most importantly, visit your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings.
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