Dental health is far more than just pearly whites—healthy gums hold those pearls in place. Periodontitis, or periodontal disease, causes loss of teeth and other health problems.
"About 300 diseases and conditions are linked in some way to oral health," Dr. Brittany Seymour, an associate professor of oral health policy at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, told the Harvard Women's Health Watch newsletter. Bacteria and inflammation can travel from the mouth, enter the bloodstream, and reach distant areas in the body.
It all starts with gingivitis. This early stage of gum disease makes gums puffy and red, and may cause bleeding, bad breath, and loose teeth. Many people think of it as an adult problem, but gingivitis is common in children, who may not brush thoroughly, and teens, whose busy lifestyles interfere with regular brushing.
Gingivitis is easily treated with daily flossing and brushing along with regular professional cleanings. Left untreated, more advanced forms of periodontal disease develop, with serious health implications, finds Tom McGuire, DDS, founder of the Dental Wellness Institute.
Bad bacteria in mouth linked to cardiovascular disease
Older adults with high levels of "bad" bacteria in the mouth also tend to have thicker carotid arteries, implicated in stroke and heart attack.
Diabetes and periodontitis
Diabetes raises a person’s risk for gum disease, and conversely, gum disease seems to worsen diabetes.
One 2020 study estimated that people with diabetes who had severe gum inflammation could reduce damage to their kidneys, eyes, and nerves by about 20 percent with improved gum care.
Periodontal disease of mother linked to preterm and low-weight births
Moms with periodontal disease are more likely to deliver premature and underweight babies than women with healthy gums.
Link between gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis
People with this disease are more likely to have gum disease than healthy subjects, researchers say.
Oral health, naturally
Practice good oral hygiene and eat a plant-based diet. Drink plenty of water and eat whole foods, including fresh fruits and raw vegetables that give your teeth and gums a workout.
If bad breath is a concern, try unsweetened yogurt. A small Japanese study found that it reduces compounds that cause bad breath and reduces plaque.
For snacks, eat raw veggies, cheese, or fruit as opposed to processed starchy or sugary snacks that leave acids that attack tooth enamel for up to 20 minutes.
Tartar sits on the gum line, creating pockets where bacteria thrive. Under the tooth, these pockets lead to inflammation, infection, tooth loss, and eventual destruction of the bone and connective tissue.
Regular professional cleanings and daily floss-and-brush routines prevent gingivitis.
Avoid tobacco, and if you still smoke, stop. It increases your risk for periodontal disease, as well as oral cancers and fungal infections.