A new year, an updated website, a new blog.
There have been so many advances and changes in dentistry over the past few decades, we thought it would be beneficial to discuss it regularly on a blog instead of only communicating that information at dental visits. My goal is to discuss topics about which I am frequently asked. I hope my posts are informative and thought provoking.
To kick things off, I want to write about what is one of the most important changes we have seen in dentistry. There have been many technological advances in dentistry the last 20-30 years, but overriding their contribution is how dentistry is now thought of in relation to overall health. This seems like it would be obvious, but the relationship between the health of the mouth and the health of the body has been largely ignored until the last decade or so.
In 1989, a study showed how oral health was a contributing factor to heart disease. Since then, many studies have identified gum disease as a significant risk factor for cancer, stroke, diabetes, lung diseases, as well as heart disease. To be clear, there is not a direct cause and effect relationship (i.e. the presence of gum disease does not mean you will definitely get any of the diseases), but the evidence shows it will increase your risk.
In posts to come, I will write more about these specific disease groups. Today, I will paint a picture to reorient thinking about the importance of the health of the mouth.
The mouth is full of microorganisms: good bacteria, bad bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We don’t think of it that way until we are sick and are working hard to get rid of the bad bacteria in our body through supplements or antibiotics. Each of us has at least 200 different kinds of microbes in our mouth. Most of the microbes in our mouth are beneficial. However, if the bad ones are allowed to proliferate, they cause cavities, gingivitis, infections, and loss of bone around the teeth. The truth is, our mouth will never be sterile and will always have bad bacteria. It is estimated we swallow about 100 billion microbes a day! These microbes are kept in check through our efforts to keep our mouth clean and by keeping our immune system strong.
Here are three ways the condition of our mouth affects our overall health. If diseases of the teeth or gums are untreated, teeth will be lost. There is a direct connection between keeping your teeth and a longer, healthier life. It makes sense; we chew better with our own teeth! Better chewing breaks down food to make it easier for our digestive system to work. We get more nutrients out of food when we can chew effectively!
Oral infections also tax our immune system, which impacts our overall health. When we have an infection of any kind, our immune system is mobilized to fight it. Our immune response has only so many resources and if it is weakened, it is not as effective. This is why it is now recommended to have your teeth cleaned before any chemo or radiation treatments for cancer. When going through cancer treatments, the immune system is overwhelmed and we do not want any “immune energy” spent on fighting mouth problems. Be aware that active gum disease makes you more prone to any illness, because our immune response is already busy fighting bad microbes in the mouth.
Lastly, the bacteria in our mouth can get into the blood stream through diseased gums (do your gums bleed when you brush or floss?) and into our lungs when breathing. This is the connection to heart and lung disease. (More on that another time!)
So, what is the point? The mouth is not isolated from the rest of the body.
Keeping our mouth healthy has beneficial effects for the short and long term. An unhealthy mouth affects our overall health and our longevity. With the tools for clean teeth and gums easily accessible for use at home, we can all work everyday to improve our health.
Until next time, choose healthy!