There is an increasing amount of information on the correlation between the health of the mouth and the overall body. Bacteria that enters the mouth and establishes itself in the oral cavity is being found in other parts of the body--such as the heart--and new studies are coming out frequently that are establishing relationships between oral health and various illnesses.
The ADA (American Dental Association)--a science-based organization with a rich history of basing recommendations on sound scientific information--has endorsed new discoveries and scientific information that indicate that inflammatory processes in the oral cavity may play a role in causing problems in other parts of the body. Importantly, more research needs to be done, and is being done, to firmly establish the relationships, but the evidence is growing rapidly.
How does this relationship occur?
Bacteria lurk in the tongue, nasal cavities, tonsil areas, gingival pockets, and can also be found floating in saliva. The body is constantly fighting these bacteria, and healthy bodies are able to keep them at bay. When our immune systems stop responding, bacteria take hold. Diseases and weakened immune systems--such as from diabetes--can decrease the ability of the immune system to respond effectively to bacteria, and this triggers the beginnings of oral disease.
As bacteria overcome the initial immune system's resistance, these bacteria expand in the pockets of the gums and gums become inflamed (and may bleed when you brush). If left untreated, this progresses into full-blown periodontitis that ulcerates gums and destroys the soft tissue and bone that anchor your teeth. It also starts to send inflammatory substances throughout the body.
As these bacteria and inflammatory substances are sent throughout the body, they take root in various parts of the body--the heart, lungs, joints, etc. A growing body of research indicates that this process may play a role in a variety of systemic health problems as wide-ranging as diabetes, respiratory illness, pregnancy complications, and heart disease.
It is important not to overstate the relationship without firm scientific proof. Genetic, microbial, immunological, and environmental factors influence both the risk and progression of infection. Researchers are following the link of out-of-control inflammation to chronic diseases from clogged arteries and heart attacks to arthritis and cancer. The importance of this link will be determined through ongoing research.
Whether or not treating oral health conditions will improve overall health depends on the illness. Diseases are complex, with some having multiple risk factors (such as behaviors, genetic conditions, and environmental issues), and thus the importance of the relationship of the mouth to the body health varies across illnesses.
However, regardless of the state of proof in the relationship to body illnesses, and for the sake of gum health alone, it makes sense to pay attention to the battle against bacteria and to maintaining oral health.
How does the increased awareness of oral health change the role of the dentist?
As the evidence becomes clearer in the relationship between oral and overall health, the role of the dentist will change, with the dentist becoming a more integral part of the general health management process. There is growing realization that it is a dentist who first discovers a larger health problem while examining the patient's mouth. As dentists typically treat healthy, ambulatory people, they can serve as an early warning system by performing early diagnosis, risk assessment, and disease management, and then following the patient as they refer them to other health care providers.
For example, using newer techniques such as salivary diagnostic technologies, dentists can capture important information such as chemicals and bacteria in the blood that will alert them to potential health concerns.
Based on the increasing evidence of links between oral and whole-body health, as well as the changing role of dentists in the overall health management, we want to use the best scientific information and newest technologies to make good treatment and clinical care decisions that will improve the quality of life and health of our patients. Let us help you with our knowledge and tools for diagnosis!