Dentists are looking out for more than your teeth

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Your mouth is the gateway to your body in more ways than you might think.

A dentist can tell a lot about your overall health by examining your mouth, head and neck. That's especially important because people tend to visit the dentist's office more often than they do a primary care physician.
Poor oral health, gum disease in particular, is associated with diabetes, heart disease and stroke. In pregnant women, gum disease is also associated with premature births and low birth weight.

"The mouth can be a good warning signpost,” said Dr. Ann Bolger, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco.

More than 90% of common diseases have oral symptoms a dentist can detect. Some diseases and their oral indicators are:

  • Anemia: Burning, fiery red tongue, swelling of the corners of the mouth or pale gums.
  • Diabetes: Dry mouth, breath odor, tooth decay, inflammation and infection.
  • Heart disease: Jaw pain and gum inflammation.
  • Immune deficiency (HIV positive): Unexplained sores or unremovable white areas on the sides of the tongue.
  • Kidney failure: Dry mouth, odor, metallic taste, ulcers on tongue and gums.

Research on the connection between oral and overall health continues, with a recent focus on cardiovascular issues.

Numerous studies have looked at how oral health affects overall health, and some have found an impact. One study showed periodontal, or serious gum disease, is associated with atherosclerotic vascular disease and may be an early warning sign of diabetes. Another found correlations between gum disease and fewer teeth and increased risk of stroke.

Another study – conducted by Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston – linked losing two or more teeth in middle age to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The increased risk occurred regardless of other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, said Dr. Lu Qi, professor of epidemiology at Tulane University.

In the study, people with 25 to 32 natural teeth at the start who lost two or more teeth had a 23% increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Those with fewer than 17 of their own teeth at the start of the study had a 25% increased risk.

The increased risk occurred regardless of other cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, according to Qi.

“Some reasons for the increased risk may include inflammation, modifying dietary intakes or changing bacterial compositions in the mouth or gastrointestinal systems,” he said.

Half of American adults age 30 and older have periodontal disease(link opens in new window), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, U.S. adults ages 35-64 are missing seven to 10(link opens in new window) of their permanent 32 teeth, including wisdom teeth, according to the National Institute of Dental Craniofacial Research.

Qi said the findings suggest that recent loss of two or more teeth is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, regardless of the number of natural teeth a person has as a middle-age adult.

So, keep in mind, if you neglect your oral health by avoiding regular dental exams, you could also be neglecting your overall health and well-being.

Think of your dentist as a disease detective and see them regularly.


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