If you take better care of your teeth, you may just survive diabetes.
That may seem like an odd claim but it’s part of a widespread belief among doctors that poor dental and oral hygiene is linked to a number of major diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
The connection is fairly simple: The more bacteria left to fester in your mouth, the more likely those germs will make their way to the rest of your body through your digestive tract and eventually into your blood.
The connection to diabetes actually goes both ways. Increased glucose levels have been shown to produce dry mouth as well as more sugary-saliva that eats away at a person’s teeth and ultimately fosters gum disease, or periodontitis.
At the same time, periodontitis has been shown to induce hyperlipidemia (an abnormally high concentration of fats in the blood) as well as insulin resistance, which complicates the diabetes sufferers’ ability to fight the disease.
In addition, diabetics with severe periodontitis have been shown to have a higher risk of end state renal disease and cardio-renal mortality.
About 10-15% of adults suffer from periodontitis compared to some 8-10% with type 2 diabetes. Because of their close mutually destructive connection, some researchers have branded the two diseases a “diabolic duo.”
It’s not just diabetes. Poor oral care has been linked to cancer, heart disease, strokes and bacterial pneumonia – and even dementia
For example, one study found that men with gum disease were 54% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, 49% more likely to develop kidney cancer, and 30% more likely to develop blood cancer.
The connection to heart disease is also well documented. “People with periodontal disease are two times more likely to develop heart disease and arterial narrowing as a result of bacteria and plaque entering the bloodstream through the gums,” notes one study.
“The bacteria contain a clot-promoting protein that can clog arteries, leading to an increased risk of a heart attack. In addition, if high levels of disease-causing bacteria from the mouth clog the carotid artery – the blood vessel that delivers blood to the brain and head – it could increase the risk of having a stroke.”
Poor oral hygiene can even affect sexual performance. One study concludes: “Men suffering from periodontal diseases are 7 times more likely to develop erectile dysfunction than those with good oral health. Erectile dysfunctions occur because of viral organisms from oral infections traveling through the bloodstream and blocking blood flow to genital areas.”
And in women, there is evidence that gum disease can make getting pregnant harder. A 2011 study from Australia found that women with periodontal disease took longer to become pregnant than those without the condition. Periodontal disease also increases the risk of pre-term delivery, according to some studies,
Some doctors caution against exaggerating the effects of poor oral care on the development of major diseases. When two diseases occur together, they likely share the same risk factors. Rather than one causing or even complicating the other, the two may simply be “co-occurring.”
In 2012, the American Heart Association stated publicly that there is no conclusive evidence that gum disease actually causes heart disease, or that dental treatment prevents heart disease.
Still, for some heart conditions, the link between the two conditions is more established. For example, endocarditis, which features inflammation of the lining of the heart valve, is most commonly caused by bacteria (including oral bacteria) that enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart.
The connection between major disease onset and oral hygiene could figure prominently in prevention efforts.
For example, more than 7 million people with diabetes don’t know they have it, and dentists might well play a role in identifying those with the disease.
According to a 2011 study, dentists were able to identify patients with diabetes 73 percent of the time simply by counting the number their missing teeth and by examining the abnormal openings between their teeth and gums.
When dentists take into account results from blood tests their accuracy increases to 92 percent.
While more research is needed on how oral hygiene affects major diseases, doctors outside of dentistry agree that taking better care of your teeth and your mouth is an important way to shore up your overall health.
Brushing your teeth, flossing and gargling is essential for good oral hygiene. But practiced regularly they may just keep you alive.