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Watch Your Mouth: The Link Between Oral and General Health

Sunday, September 26, 2010 at 8:00 AM

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A strong set of teeth, preferably white and straight, is good for one's appearance and ability to chew …but there's more at stake than that. The health of your teeth and gums can affect your heart, liver, even a baby in the womb. Over the next week ideastream will be exploring multiple facets of oral health with reports on radio, TV and our websites. Here's ideastream health and science reporter Gretchen Cuda with today's installment in our series - "Watch Your Mouth."

Those knowledgeable about dental history say it was once common for doctors to recommend pulling all the teeth to cure arthritis.  That therapy that has thankfully fallen out of favor, but as it turns out the link between oral health and disease in other parts of the body wasn’t that far off.

BISSADA: It’s not only teeth … it has a link to your general health.
Heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, etc. etc..
CUDA: Etc.. etc..?  Are there lots more?
BISSADA: the more we do research in the last few years the more we find more diseases.

Nabil Bissada is a professor of periodontics at Case Western Reserve school of dental medicine.  He explains that half of all the bacteria in the body are present in the mouth. Bleeding and infected gums and teeth, allow that bacteria an open doorway to the rest of the body.

BISSADA: Bacteria in the mouth go through the blood vessels in the general circulation.  It may settle in the valve of your heart, it goes to the kidneys, it goes to the joints where it cause disease.

But Bissada says that there is a second way an unhealthy mouth can make you sick: inflammation. 

When the chemical signals that trigger redness, pain and swelling are released in the mouth because of an infected tooth or gums, those chemical signals also circulate through the bloodstream where they can have an adverse impact on the heart, liver, pancreas and joints.

These molecules increase the likelihood of inflammatory-linked diseases like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer - and they make existing problems worse.

Dr. Jeffry Gross, a Dentist in Eastlake, Ohio, sees anecdotal evidence all the time.  He says patients complain of other problems in their body that mysteriously get better once the infection in their mouth clears up.

GROSS:  I saw a patient yesterday who has not been feeling well for
5-6 months. Finally, a week and a half ago, we took out a tooth. And she said this is the first time her body has felt right in that period of time and obviously it was coming from this infection that was coming from this tooth. We see that all the time, but you know the patients don’t put two and two together.

However, the scientific evidence for the relationships between oral health and systemic disease is mounting and has been for several decades. Nabil Bissada’s own research at Case compared the bacteria found on the plaques of patient’s teeth, with those taken from diseased coronary arteries.

BISSADA: to our surprise we isolated the same bugs present in the
mouth- exactly the same present in the atherosclerotic artery.

It’s a big deal because poor oral health is so common in America. Bissada says 60 percent of adults have moderate or severe gum disease - and 40 percent of children have gingivitis - gum disease’s early precursor. Gerald Ferretti is a pediatric oral surgeon at Rainbow Babies and Children’s hospital and a professor of pediatric dentistry at Case Western.

FERRETTI: Early childhood decay is the number one chronic infection in childhood - it’s 7 times higher than asthma, much higher than ear infections.  In the greater Cleveland area we’ve looked at thousands of head start children ages 3 to 5 and we’ve found that 45% of these children have early childhood decay.

Tooth decay can be dangerous, even fatal.  Statistics show that nearly half of all dental related pediatric emergency room visits are due to infected teeth, and mostly to underserved patients who lack access to dental care.

Feretti says for most children the concern is what happens later in life.  There is good evidence to show that poor oral health habits and the associated dental problems that start in childhood have long term consequences on the adult teeth and health of those children over their lifetime.

FERRETTI: If you start out in terrible shape then the risk is high that you’ll be in terrible shape your whole life.

Experts caution that there’s no evidence that infections of the teeth and gums will directly cause a chronic disease - but the association between the two keeps growing.  Currently, the state department of health says oral health is the number one unmet health need in Ohio., and one hope of dentists and health officials is that as the public becomes more aware of the risks not tending to your teeth and gums poses…they will take prevention, and the importance of access to regular dental care more seriously. 

Gretchen Cuda, 90.3

Additional Information

Related Stories:
Mobile Dental Unit Aims to Give Ohio Kids Healthier Mouths, Aired Sunday May 2, 2010
Oral Bacteria Linked to Stillbirth, Aired January 5, 2010

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Health, Health, Watch Your Mouth!

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