For years, going to the dentist has been perceived as being all about tooth decay. Your bi-annual visit to the practice was typically about removing plaque, filling holes and preventing gum disease – little more than a process of routine maintenance not unlike that you would subject your vehicle to.
In recent years, however, a growing amount of research has begun to show that going to the dentist is about far more than just your teeth and gums. In fact, poor dental hygiene has now been linked to a number of much more serious illnesses.
It may sound far-fetched, but since 2013 UK researchers have been studying links between gum disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. The link was first established by scientists from the University of New York, who found evidence of a link between gum inflammation and Alzheimer’s in research that spanned a period of twenty years. The team concluded that those with gum inflammation at the age of 70 were significantly more likely to have a low DST score – a measure of cognitive function.
Perhaps most interestingly, the P. gingivalis Bacterium which is usually associated with chronic gum disease has also been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. A 2014 study concluded that chemicals released by the brain’s immune system in response to P. gingivalis could reach the brain ‘inadvertently’, damaging functional neurons in the area of the brain related to memory.”
Research in this field is still in its early stages and far from conclusive but may have significant implications in the future.
A connection between gum disease and pancreatic cancer was first reported by a team from Harvard in 2007. Their study looked into the issue of periodontitis, which affects the tissue that supports the teeth and can cause loss of bone around the base of the teeth. It was found that there was a strong link between periodontitis and the occurrence of pancreatic cancer.
Subsequent research concludes that men with gum disease have a 68% increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer compared with those who had never had it.
Whilst a clear link has been identified, researchers have yet to discover the exact cause and efforts are continuing to understand the relationship better.
Did you know that poor oral hygiene can increase your risk of heart disease? Joint research by scientists from Bristol and Dublin in 2008 revealed that bleeding gums resulting from poor dental hygiene were a considerable factor in increasing the risk of a heart attack. This has been attributed to bacteria from the mouth is able to enter the bloodstream and stick to platelets, which can then form blood clots, interrupting the flow of blood to the heart and triggering a heart attack.
What is perhaps most interesting about the findings is that gum disease as a risk factor for heart attacks is completely independent from other factors – meaning that it can affect anybody regardless of age, health, lifestyle etc.
Research into the links between gum disease and serious illnesses is relatively new, and therefore it will be some time before hard and fast cause-effect links can be proven, and even longer before you can expect your dentist to be considering such things in the course of a routine check up.
However, the evidence so far confirms that the health benefits of observing good practice when it comes to your oral hygiene have much wider implications than ever previously realised. If you don’t already follow the tooth brushing guidelines and commit to at least two minutes of brushing twice a day, now has never been a better time to start.
And whilst your dentist will not be performing advanced medical health screening for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that regular dental check ups can still make sure that early warning signs are not missed and help to ensure specialist referrals are made at the earliest possible opportunity.