Can’t ever find the time to take care of your teeth? According to the American Dental Association, about half of Americans don’t floss daily, and one in five don’t brush twice daily – so you’re not alone.
But you may want to reconsider.
It’s easy to start wondering why brushing is so important, which leads to some interesting speculation about what happens if you stop brushing entirely. After all, cavemen didn’t brush, so why should we?
One of the big problems with dropping brushing from your daily personal care routine is the modern diet. The human mouth harbors a lot of wildlife in the form of more than 600 types of bacteria. Because many of the foods humans eat are rich in sugars, there are plenty of sugar-loving bacteria to eat – especially when you don’t brush regularly.
Check out this video of a man who stopped brushing for just five days, then had his teeth professionally examined.
After a while, plaque film gets harder and more resistant to scraping and brushing and starts to form tartar, which may cause bleeding and swollen gums (gingivitis) but is easy to ignore because it isn’t painful and can lead to more problems, such as periodontitis (see our article on Gingivitis and Periodontitis for more info).
If this sounds gruesome, it gets worse. Think of your mouth as the doorway to the rest of you. Bacteria developing there can invade other systems in your body. Although research is ongoing, poor dental health may contribute to a number of very serious conditions you’d never expect.
“Taking care of your teeth and gums isn’t just about preventing cavities or bad breath,” the ADA warns. “The mouth is a gateway into your body’s overall health.”
There’s mounting evidence that shows an association between poor dental hygiene and a wide variety of ills, some of which seem rather surprising:
A large, long-term study of residents at a retirement community suggests that there may be a link between poor dental health and dementia, although it’s possible that people with better oral hygiene have better health habits in general. Researchers followed 5,468 people for 18 years and found that – among those who still had teeth – those “who reported not brushing their teeth daily had a 22% to 65% greater risk of dementia than those who brushed three times daily.” Another smaller study found that the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s had more bacteria associated with gum disease than did those belonging to the cognitively healthy.
When germs lurk in your mouth, you inhale them right into your lungs, where they can wreak all kinds of havoc. One major review pointed to this process as the reason for an association between poor oral hygiene and hospital-acquired pneumonia. Improving oral hygiene reduced the incidence of such pneumonia by 40%. Another study of 315 hospital patients found that those with periodontitis were almost three times as likely to have pneumonia.
A connection may seem remote, but preliminary research suggests that the conditions could be linked. They both have been tied to Vitamin D deficiency, smoking, and general inflammation, but the exact reason for the association is still a mystery. In a group of patients between 30 and 40, 53% of those with erectile dysfunction had severe periodontitis, while only 23% of those without ED did.
Often caused by bacterial infection, an abscess is a collection of pus with swelling and inflammation around it. “A poor dental condition, notably destructive periodontal disease, can be a risk” for life-threatening disease in other parts of the body, noted a team of scientists who pinpointed a patient’s extremely poor dental health as the likely cause of his life-threatening brain abscess. Brain abscesses are rare, and there has been no systematic study linking them to bad dental hygiene, but the authors found at least 12 other case reports of brain abscess that pointed to poor dental hygiene as the probable cause.
Dentists have long known that diabetes can lead to periodontitis, but now research is beginning to indicate that the relationship may go both ways. Extremely poor dental health may be a risk factor for insulin resistance (often called “pre-diabetes”) and diabetes, largely because it increases inflammation. Some studies have even indicated that in patients with both conditions, reigning in periodontitis may improve diabetes control.
About 3.7% of U.S. adults have chronic kidney disease, but people with periodontal disease were 4.5 times more likely to have chronic kidney disease, making poor dental health a stronger predictor for CKD than high cholesterol. While dental disease is not the strongest risk factor – people older than 60 are 27 times more likely to have chronic kidney disease than younger people, for example – another study confirmed that periodontitis might be a significant risk for kidney disease, even after controlling for underlying health conditions that contribute to both.
Multiple studies have suggested that there may be a connection between gum disease and heart disease, both of which are associated with inflammation. “Adding oral health self-care… is prudent to improve patient’s oral health and possibly reduces [coronary heart disease],” concluded one study. “Periodontal disease caused by pathogen bacteria… could represent one of several possible causal factors of heart disease,” concluded another.
A statement from the American Heart Association in 2012 urged caution: periodontal disease and heart disease share many underlying risk factors, but there’s no reason to think that dental problems directly cause heart disease, and treating periodontitis reduces inflammation but does nothing to alter the course of heart disease, the authors concluded.
Gingivitis affects 60 to 75% of pregnant women, and it’s especially important that expectant mothers tend to their teeth. When pregnant women have serious dental problems, their infants are more likely to develop cavities. Poor maternal oral health is also associated with low birth weight and preterm birth. Researchers suspect that one of two mechanisms may be at play: either overall inflammation is heightened, or oral bacteria that enter the bloodstream eventually reach the placenta, causing an inflammatory response.
In people with periodontitis, the plaque that forms in the pockets beneath the gum line can become a reservoir for Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that is responsible for stomach ulcers. Helicobacter pylori can be transmitted orally, and large studies have found an association between periodontitis and the presence of the bacterium, which is also a risk factor for stomach cancer. The bacterial pockets that form during periodontitis unquestionably pose a risk for various kinds of bacterial growth and infection.
Recent evidence suggests that periodontal disease and tooth loss may be associated with an increased risk of cancer. Gum disease and dental problems are also associated with HPV, which causes up to 80 percent of oral cancers. A study last year of 3,439 people identified poor oral health as an independent risk factor for HPV, even when smoking habits were accounted for. Other preliminary research has suggested that periodontitis may promote the growth of cancerous cells in the mouth.
Bottom line? Don’t neglect your oral health! For tips on how to brush and floss correctly, check out our article on Home Dental Care.
If you live in the Fort Smith area and would like to have a dental checkup, use our Contact form or call 479-452-1738 to make an appointment today!