Gum disease may be deadly, studies suggest

Bacteria are feared to be escaping into other parts of the body

Health & Fitness

January 04, 2004|By Julie Sevrens Lyons | Julie Sevrens Lyons,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Got floss?

If you don't -- or if you rarely use the dental aid between your teeth -- you might want to rethink your commitment to oral health. Having immaculate spaces between your molars and bicuspids isn't as sexy as bleaching them a pearly white, but it has far greater implications for your overall health, doctors now believe.

While it's long been known that gum disease can lead to tooth loss if left untreated, researchers point to a growing body of evidence that inflammation below the gum line may also be associated with more insidious and far-reaching health effects.

Studies increasingly suggest that gum problems may contribute to heart disease and stroke, exacerbate diabetes and spur pre-term labor in pregnant women. Unhealthy gums may also signal broader systemic illnesses, such as diabetes. Scientists suspect they've only just begun to discover what health problems might be linked to gum disease.

"What's going on in the mouth can be a mirror for what's going on systemically," said Dr. Sally Cram, a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association.

Turns out, tooth loss might be the least of worries for a gum disease sufferer.

"And it would be better if people were more tuned into it," said Dr. Michael Rethman, president of the American Academy of Periodontology.

To be sure, swollen, bleeding gums have long been perceived as harmless enough to most members of the public. Trips to the dentist have more often been initiated out of desires to get teeth lightly buffed or a nagging toothache addressed than gums poked and prodded.

Cram used to tell gum disease patients they were suffering from "a really chronic, low-grade infection, but it really doesn't kill people."

But now, she says, she tells them the opposite. With scientific research in the past few years indicating that gum disease patients are likely at higher risk for heart attacks and strokes, the best thing she can say about the ailment is that "it is totally preventable," she said.

Gum problems are rife

An estimated 80 percent of American adults have some form of gum disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Also known as periodontal disease, it is characterized by red or swollen gums, persistent bad breath, bloody gums, loose teeth and pain while chewing.

It often starts innocently enough, with a slight buildup of bacteria on teeth. Perhaps good dental hygiene just went on a short holiday. But any of this filmy paste that is not removed with thorough and regular brushing and flossing can then harden, becoming a substance known as tartar that only a professional cleaning can eliminate.

In its earliest stage, this inflammation of the gums is called gingivitis, a mild form of gum disease that can often be reversed through good dental cleanings.

When left untreated, it can become much more severe, a condition known as periodontitis that everyone would certainly be better off avoiding. Gums pull away from the teeth and bacteria spread below the gum line. Then the bacteria create toxins that can eat away at the teeth, producing significant bone loss, Cram said.

Some studies have also suggested this bacteria can travel throughout the body, where it may settle and cause inflammation that can wreak havoc on other parts of the body.

"We are pretty sure people who have moderate to severe disease" in their gums "do seem to have other things at the same time at a higher rate. These include heart disease and stroke," said Dr. Mark Ryder, chair of periodontology at the University of California-San Francisco. "If you are a diabetic with periodontal disease, your odds of having worsened diabetes are also higher."

But saying that gum disease is the direct cause of these other woes, "it's so hard to prove," Ryder said.

In one of the more telling studies to date, however, researchers reported in August that the more teeth a person has lost, the more likely he or she is to have advanced gum disease and potentially dangerous plaque in the carotid artery, the main vessel that leads to the brain. Published online in the journal Stroke, the report supports the notion that bacteria from the gums can enter the circulatory system and then, quite possibly, cause or contribute to disease in other regions of the body.

Other studies have found an association between gum disease in pregnant woman and the birth of pre-term, low-birth-weight babies, and the development of pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in seniors.

But if gum disease can give way to other health problems, research suggests the converse might also be true. Having diabetes may set people up for having gum problems, because it can make them more susceptible to infection and probably contribute to the breakdown of tissues around the teeth, Ryder said.

In fact, in many patients who have weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV or AIDS, there tends to be a greater incidence of gum disease and bone loss around teeth, according to Cram.

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