Just as your eyes are windows to your soul, can your smile be a window to your health? Oral health experts think so. Although researchers aren’t sure whether one causes the other, oral health problems, such as periodontal disease, may suggest the need to take a closer look at a patient’s overall health.
“A number of studies show an association between periodontal disease and systemic conditions,” says Max Anderson, DDS, a national oral health adviser for Delta Dental Plans Association. “In most cases, cause and effect have not been convincingly demonstrated, but the presence of periodontal diseases can signal the presence of other health issues.”
Sometimes the early signs of disease are visible to dentists when patients open wide. For example, people with lesions or sores inside their mouths may be suffering from viral infections in their lungs. Similarly, patients with unpleasantly sensitive teeth or showing a chemical erosion of tooth enamel may be the victims of acid reflux or hiatal hernia conditions.
In other cases, health researchers have found the state of a patient’s oral health to be associated with several systemic conditions, such as diabetes and circulatory problems.
Periodontal disease is more common among people with diabetes. Young adults with diabetes are about twice as likely to suffer from periodontal disease as those without diabetes. In fact, almost one-third of people with diabetes have severe periodontal disease. Periodontal disease progresses more rapidly and is more difficult to treat in people with uncontrolled or poorly controlled diabetes than in people without diabetes.
Another research study found that patients with periodontal disease and fewer teeth than those without periodontal disease may have an increased risk of suffering a stroke, a circulatory problem where there is a lack of blood supply in the brain.
Regardless of whether researchers establish direct cause and effect relationships between oral health problems and other health issues, dentists place their emphasis on protecting and promoting oral health for their patients’ overall well-being.
“The good news is that the precautions dentists and oral health professionals recommend people take to protect their teeth, gums, and mouth aren’t harmful. So, there is no harm to stepping up your hygiene habits to improve oral health and maybe do your body some good, too,” says Dr. Anderson.
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