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Oral and Systemic Health Connection

Oral health refers to the overall health and well-being of the various structures and tissues present in the mouth, including the teeth, gums, tongue, and jaw. It involves maintaining good dental hygiene practices, as well as receiving regular dental check-ups and treatment to prevent and address oral diseases and conditions.

Systemic health, on the other hand, refers to the health of the body as a whole, including all of its systems and functions. This includes the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, immune, and musculoskeletal systems, among others.

Maintaining good oral health is essential, as it provides numerous benefits across different aspects of life. The benefits are not limited to just physical health but also extend to social, psychological, and economic well-being. People with a greater number of missing teeth often experience a lower quality of life, and those with poor teeth find it difficult to chew food properly, negatively impacting their nutritional intake.

While this relationship between oral health and such issues is widely known, at the same time there is a need to focus more on the relationship between oral health and serious systemic conditions. Recent research has revealed that oral health and general health are interconnected, with each having the potential to impact the other. In other words, just as overall health conditions can affect oral health, oral health conditions can also be influenced by general health conditions. For instance, if an individual is dealing with a health condition like heart disease or diabetes that affects their overall health, it can also impact their oral health. On the other hand, if someone has an oral health issue such as gum disease, it can also affect their overall health. Therefore, both forms of health are dependent on each other, and any changes in one can have consequences for the other.

The significance of the oral cavity in indicating overall health has gained widespread recognition in recent times, with many referring to it as the “window to general health.” The relationship between oral health and systemic health is now widely accepted and understood. The mouth is no longer viewed as an isolated entity and poor oral health is recognized to have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life.

The Ripple Effect | How Oral Health Impacts Your Entire Body

Oral health conditions like dental caries and periodontal diseases can have negative impacts on an individual’s general health. The development of dental caries, commonly known as cavities, is due to specific bacteria in the mouth that break down sugars, leading to acid production that erodes the enamel of the teeth. Periodontal diseases are a group of chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the supporting tissues of the teeth, including the gums, ligaments, and bones. Gingivitis, a mild form of periodontal disease, causes redness, swelling, and bleeding of the gums, while periodontitis is a more severe form of the condition that can result in tooth loss.

Both dental caries and periodontal diseases are caused by oral bacteria, which, when left untreated, can enter the bloodstream through the gums, causing inflammation and potentially contributing to the development of several chronic health conditions, such as:

Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a disease that occurs when cholesterol and its products build up in and on the artery walls, which makes them narrow and can cause heart disease and stroke. Periodontal disease, a common oral health condition characterized by inflammation and infection of the gums and supporting tissues, is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Periodontology found that poor oral health was associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis disease in Australian adults.

Diabetes

The relationship between diabetes and periodontitis is bidirectional and can result in a vicious cycle, with diabetes aggravating gum disease and gum disease worsening diabetes. Individuals with diabetes have a minimum of three times greater risk of developing periodontitis compared to those without diabetes. When one suffers from gum disease, the inflammation and infection in the gums can lead to increased blood sugar levels, which can make diabetes management challenging. Additionally, diabetes diminishes the body’s ability to combat infections, making it more difficult to control gum disease. According to a 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, Australian adults with periodontitis (a severe form of gum disease) have a greater risk of developing diabetes.

Respiratory infections

Poor oral health has been linked to respiratory infections such as pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (lung diseases that block airflow and make it difficult to breathe). Oral bacteria, can be easily inhaled into the lungs and cause infections, especially in people with a weakened immune system. If inhaled, these bacteria can result in inflammation and harm to the lungs’ tissues, leading to breathing difficulties and symptoms like coughing and wheezing. In severe cases, these infections can pose a significant threat to one’s life.

Pregnancy Complications 

Gum disease can harm pregnancy outcomes. Pregnant women who have gum disease are more likely to have preterm, low-birth-weight babies. The bacteria responsible for causing gum disease can enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation, which can trigger preterm labour. Therefore, it is important for pregnant women to maintain good oral hygiene and to visit their dentist regularly to prevent gum disease and reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy.

What Systemic Conditions Can Affect Your Oral Health

Similar to how oral health conditions can affect general health conditions, certain general health conditions can also have an impact on oral health. These may include:

HIV/AIDS

Individuals with HIV/AIDS have a higher susceptibility to various oral health problems, such as painful mouth sores, gum disease, and oral thrush. These issues can worsen due to weakened immune systems and medications prescribed to manage the condition. People with HIV/AIDS may require specialized oral health care and may need to visit the dentist more frequently for check-ups and cleanings.

Diabetes 

Diabetes is one such condition that affects millions of people worldwide. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 1.2 million Australians had diabetes in 2017-18. People with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss if left untreated. High blood sugar levels in people with diabetes can also contribute to dry mouth, which can lead to tooth decay and oral infections. Dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications used to treat diabetes, including insulin.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decrease. It causes bones to become so weak and brittle that a fall or even mild stresses such as bending over or coughing can cause a fracture This loss of bone density may also affect the jawbone, resulting in the absorption of alveolar bone. As a result, the gaps between teeth and gums become deeper and more frequent, creating an opening for periodontal bacteria to invade, causing chronic infection. This can eventually lead to tooth loss and other dental issues.

Furthermore, medications used to treat systemic conditions can also have negative effects on oral health. For example, some medications used to treat high blood pressure, depression, and other conditions can cause dry mouth, which can increase the risk of tooth decay and oral infections.

Factors Influencing Oral and Systemic Health

Many factors can affect oral and general health, and with a little help from health professionals, these factors can be easily managed. Below are some of the most significant factors:

  • Poor Oral Hygiene Practices: Neglecting regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups can lead to the build-up of harmful bacteria in the mouth, which can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and other oral infections. These infections, if left untreated, can spread to other parts of the body and contribute to systemic diseases.
  • Tobacco Use: Smoking or using tobacco products can increase the risk of oral cancer, gum disease, tooth loss, and other oral health problems. It can also contribute to the development of several systemic diseases, such as heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on oral and general health. It can lead to oral cancer, gum disease, tooth decay, and other oral infections. It can also damage the liver, increase blood pressure, and contribute to the development of heart disease.
  • Unhealthy Diet: A diet high in sugar and processed foods can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease. A diet that is low in nutrients can also weaken the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off infections and diseases.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can contribute to various health problems, including oral health problems such as tooth grinding, gum disease, and dry mouth. It can also increase the risk of developing systemic diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

Conclusion | Key Takeaways 

Maintaining good oral health is not only essential for healthy teeth and gums but also for overall health and well-being. Research has shown that poor oral health can contribute to a range of systemic health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory infections. Conversely, certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, can increase the risk of oral health problems such as gum disease and oral infections.

The link between oral health and systemic health is well-established, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the mouth is not a separate entity from the rest of the body. Poor oral health can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life, including pain, discomfort, and social isolation. Moreover, it can also lead to more severe and complex health issues and can contribute to an increased risk of mortality.

Therefore, it is important to prioritize your oral health and work closely with healthcare providers to reduce the risk of health problems. This includes practising good oral hygiene habits such as brushing and flossing regularly, getting regular dental check-ups and cleanings, and addressing any oral health issues promptly. Furthermore, adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes proper nutrition, regular exercise, and avoiding harmful habits such as smoking, can further promote good oral health and overall wellness. By recognizing the link between oral and systemic health, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent health issues and maintain a high quality of life.

It’s important to discuss any concerns about your oral health with your dentist or healthcare providers. They can assess your oral health, provide treatment, and offer guidance on maintaining good oral hygiene practices. By taking a proactive approach to your oral health, you can prevent systemic health issues and ensure that any problems are addressed right away.

Reference List

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Diabetes. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/health-conditions-disability-deaths/diabetes/overview

Brennan, D. S., Luzzi, L., Roberts-Thomson, K. F., & Lawrence, H. P. (2014). Tooth loss, chewing ability and quality of life. Quality of Life Research, 23(4), 1219-1227. doi: 10.1007/s11136-013-0551-1

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Periodontal (Gum) Disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/conditions/periodontal-disease.html

Dietrich, T., Webb, I., Stenhouse, L., Pattni, A., Ready, D., Wanyonyi, K. L., & White, S. (2016). Evidence summary: The relationship between oral and cardiovascular disease. British Dental Journal, 221(9), 569-576. doi: 10.1038/sj.bdj.2016.865

Genco, R. J., & Graziani, F. (2013). Editors’ introduction: Periodontal disease and overall health: A clinician’s guide. Dental Clinics of North America, 57(3), xvii-xx. doi: 10.1016/j.cden.2013.05.001

Gnanenthiran SR, Kritharides L, Li Q, Hodge T, Knuiman M, Divitini ML, et al. (2016). “Association between periodontitis and arterial stiffness in an Australian population”. Journal of Periodontology. 87(4): 413–22. doi: 10.1902/jop.2015.150461. PMID: 26666559.

Kassebaum, N. J., Bernabé, E., Dahiya, M., Bhandari, B., Murray, C. J., & Marcenes, W. (2015). Global burden of untreated caries: A systematic review and metaregression. Journal of Dental Research, 94(5), 650-658. doi: 10.1177/0022034515573272

Kumar, S., Tadakamadla, J., Kroon, J., & Johnson, N. W. (2016). Impact of oral health on the quality of life of Australian senior citizens. Journal of Investigative and Clinical Dentistry, 7(4), 412-419. doi: 10.1111/jicd.12195

Pihlstrom, B. L., Michalowicz, B. S., & Johnson, N. W. (2005). Periodontal diseases. The Lancet, 366(9499), 1809-1820. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67728-8

Tonetti, M. S., & Van Dyke, T. E. (2013). Periodontitis and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease: Consensus report of the Joint EFP/AAP Workshop on Periodontitis and Systemic Diseases. Journal of Clinical Periodontology, 40(s14), S24-S29. doi: 10.1111/jcpe.12089

Zhang Q, Nguyen T, McNeil E, Tabatabaian F, Green B, Kang J, et al. (2020). “Periodontal disease and incident diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. 162: 108089. doi: 10.1016/j.diabres.2020.108089. PMID: 32603879.