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Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body: Cardiovascular Disease and Oral Health

Your Mouth is Part of Your Body!

It is easy to view oral health in a vacuum. We do see a dentist for our teeth and a general physician for pretty much everything else, after all.

However, thanks to new research, we are learning about new and interesting connections between health in our mouths and health throughout our bodies. The link between oral health and whole-body health is called the oral-systemic connection, and it can impact an array of conditions, from cardiovascular disease (heart disease) to diabetes, osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s disease, and much more.

Bottom Line: Poor oral health can impact overall health. It is incredibly important to see a dentist regularly, especially if you experience adverse health effects elsewhere in your body.

For dentists and medical doctors alike, it is important to keep the oral-systemic connection in mind when treating patients with periodontal disease and diseases linked to poor oral health.

In a three-part series, “Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body,” the Foundation for Health Leadership and Innovation’s North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative will break down the most prevalent examples of the oral-systemic connection and what you can do to make sure you have a healthy mouth and a healthy body.

Healthy Mouth, Healthy Heart

Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, is one of the most common medical problems Americans face today. Even if your teeth seem far removed from your heart and arteries, there are important connections between the two.

If you have ever cut your face or mouth, you have seen firsthand just how many blood vessels are in these areas. Our faces and mouths are home to tons of small blood vessels right near the surface of our skin.

With all those surface-level blood vessels, it is incredibly easy for harmful bacteria from gum disease (periodontal disease) to make their way into the bloodstream.

What is Periodontal Disease?

Periodontitis, or gum disease, is an infection caused by plaque build-up that impacts the gum tissue and bone holding your teeth in place. At some level, periodontal disease affects 75 percent of adults in the United States.

Gum disease can release harmful bacteria directly into your bloodstream. Additionally, a side effect of serious gum disease is chronic inflammation, which is linked to medical conditions like atherosclerosis, an artery disease that can lead to heart attacks and stroke.

It is important to note that while scientists studying the connection between gum disease and heart disease have not found a causal role (one directly affects the other), there are numerous studies finding strong links between poor oral health and worsening outcomes for cardiovascular health.

What Does This Mean?

Our Habits Play a Role

When you think about the oral-systemic connection, it is important to consider causes as well as connections and outcomes. For example, consuming a lot of sugary foods on a day-to-day basis puts you at risk for diabetes, cavities, and periodontal disease. There are many other habits, such as tobacco use, that also impact your oral health and the health of the rest of your body.

The oral-systemic connection doesn’t mean that one cavity will cause an overall health crisis, but it does highlight how important it is to see a dentist regularly, especially for people who traditionally lack access (read more about systemic barriers to oral health care here).

Additionally, the oral-systemic connection highlights the need for more integrated models of health care. Traditionally, medical professionals are siloed within their area of expertise. With how interconnected the body is, it is important that health care reflect those links, with provider networks equipped with the tools necessary to assess and diagnose health problems from head to toe.

Be sure to stay tuned. Part two of this three-part series, focusing on the connection between oral health and diabetes, will be published on January 28.

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Additional Sources for Information on the Oral-Systemic Connection