Oral Health & General Health: Everything You Need to Know

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Oral Health & General Health: Everything You Need to KnowClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. A Two-Way Relationship
  2. Medical Conditions Linked to Oral Health
  3. Diseases That Can Impact Your Oral Health
  4. Oral Health & Your Quality of Life
  5. Tips for Good Oral Health
  6. References

Brushing and flossing your teeth every day are vital self-care measures to keep your teeth and gums healthy. Combining these routines with regular dental exams helps prevent multiple dental complications as you get older.

It’s important, too, because researchers believe that good oral health has an even greater significance on overall health: Having healthy teeth and gums delivers a psychological and physical pick-me-up.

When you have excess bad bacteria in your mouth, your heart or even brain health might be at risk. Dental issues like tooth loss or decay have also been linked to problems in other parts of the body.

Understanding the possible connection between common oral issues and other body conditions can help you take better care of your overall health.

how are oral health and general health connected

The Two-Way Relationship Between Your Oral Health and Overall Health

Scientists propose several ways in which oral health and general wellness may be connected. These include:

  • Oral bacteria
  • Inflammation
  • Medications
Oral Bacteria
Inflammation
Medications

Bacterial buildup in your mouth can pose greater danger than just bleeding gums or tooth loss. Notably, bacteria associated with gum disease (periodontitis) may enter the bloodstream and travel to sensitive areas like the brain.

Serious complications can develop in any bacteria-infested part of the body.

Most bacterial infections of the mouth, including gum disease, can cause painful inflammation (swelling). In case such bacteria enter the bloodstream and invade the brain, they can trigger severe inflammatory responses.

Some of the prescription or over-the-counter drugs used to treat various medical conditions can cause oral complications. These may include:

  • Dry mouth: Some medications, such as those used for cancer treatments, can reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth. This dryness exposes your teeth to agents of decay, such as plaque.  
  • Fungal infection: Inhaling certain drugs through the mouth can cause painful yeast conditions like oral thrush.

Medical Conditions Linked to Oral Health

Medical Conditions Linked to Oral Health

Various researchers have been observing different patient groups with dental issues like gum disease or cavities for a long time. They have concluded that these problems are closely linked to various medical conditions in many patients.

This conclusion doesn’t necessarily suggest that if you lose a tooth, you’ll eventually get a heart or brain problem. Rather, it means that certain oral/dental issues and general illnesses tend to occur at the same time in many people.

Multiple studies have confirmed this correlation between oral health and other diseases, such as:

Cardiovascular (Heart) Complications

As unlikely as it may seem, there’s a connection between missing teeth and heart complications, according to one study. The correlation isn’t far-fetched given that people with conditions that cause tooth loss, such as gum disease, have higher rates of heart attack or even stroke.

There are a couple potential explanations for these surprising observations:

  • Bacteria entering the bloodstream
  • Immune response

Bacteria Entering the Blood Stream

The same bacteria that infect the gum can enter blood vessels and cause serious heart issues. Infected arteries or veins may become damaged and inflamed.

Once blood clots start forming inside these vessels, heart attacks can occur. Patients with atherosclerosis (abnormally thick arteries) are at a higher risk of experiencing these cardiovascular incidents and stroke because of the clotting.

Immune Response

Another theory is that inflammation damages blood vessels, leading to heart and brain issues. This occurs after the periodontitis bacteria from the mouth enter your bloodstream.

To protect you from the bacterial infestation, your immune system triggers blood vessel inflammation. This response can cause damage to veins and arteries throughout your body.

If your heart or brain is affected, it will not function properly.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a painful condition that affects the lungs and causes breathing difficulty. One study linked the viral infection to poor dental hygiene.

Pneumonia becomes a more dangerous condition for patients with the following oral/dental issues:

  • Multiple cavities
  • Higher number of missing teeth
  • Not brushing teeth regularly
  • Lack of regular dental cleanup at the dentist’s office

Not practicing proper oral hygiene for an extended duration may result in adverse problems such as:

  • Plaque accumulation
  • Unhealthy levels of bacteria in saliva
  • Yeast in the throat (oropharynx colonization)

These adverse effects are seen in patients with severe pneumonia. Some victims with the oral issues may even require hospitalization or intensive care after getting the respiratory infection.

Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes gradual brain damage. Eventually, the victim suffers loss of essential mental functions, including memory.

Now there’s scientific evidence linking Alzheimer’s to gingivitis, another bacterial gum disorder.

Another outcome of inadequate dental hygiene, gingivitis causes your gum to swell around the base of your teeth. While the oral infection is typically mild, the bacteria behind it can have a more devastating impact beyond your mouth.

According to researchers, here’s the link between gingivitis and progressive brain degeneration:

  • The patient has persistent gingivitis, leading to unhealthy presence of harmful bacteria (gingivalis) in the mouth
  • From the mouth, gingivalis enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain
  • The bacteria produce proteins (enzymes) that can slowly destroy brain cells and cell connections
  • When the nerve cells die, the patient suffers memory loss and develops Alzheimer’s

It’s important to note that this brain condition doesn’t occur at once. Instead, it develops gradually as bacteria in the mouth accumulate.

Left untreated, gingivitis lets more bacteria move to the brain where the microorganisms generate more destructive enzymes. In this study, the deceased people with Alzheimer’s had high levels of the gingivitis-linked proteins in their brain.

Diseases That Can Impact Your Oral Health

The correlation between your overall health and your oral health is bidirectional. As such, some diseases may expose you to dental problems like gum diseases, cavity, or tooth loss.

Some examples:

  • HIV or AIDs
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s
diseases that impact oral health
HIV or AIDs
Diabetes
Alzheimer’s

Having HIV or AIDs weakens your body’s ability to fight various diseases and infections. With your immune system compromised, most viruses or bacteria encounter little resistance when they enter your body.

The viral infection can cause painful dental complications if not properly managed, such as gingivitis. While gum disease can affect anyone, HIV patients are more susceptible to its severe symptoms, including gum ulcers and tissue loss.

Other oral issues linked to HIV and AIDs include:

  • Tooth loss
  • Oral thrush
  • Dry mouth
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Canker sores (shallow, painful wounds that may form inside your mouth)

Diabetes (having too much sugar in your blood) poses several risks to your oral health. Just like HIV and AIDs, it can cause problems such as:

  • Gum disease
  • Tooth loss
  • Difficulty managing/treating gum disease
  • Slow healing of mouth ulcers
  • Thrush
  • Painful oral ulcers
  • Dry mouth
  • Tooth decay and loss

While dental problems may cause Alzheimer’s, the reverse could also be true. The disease causes mental impairment, which multiple researchers have linked to various oral disorders.

With your cognition (mental capabilities) largely degraded, you may experience everyday challenges such as:

  • Forgetting or failing to appreciate why you need to brush or floss your teeth
  • Having no idea how to take good care of your teeth

Due to their poor oral hygiene, people with the degenerative brain disease tend to experience dental issues like:

  • Cavities
  • Tooth decay
  • Tooth loss
  • Gum disease

Impact of Oral Health on Your Quality of Life

Living with untreated oral issues can adversely impact your life. Prevention is much better as it lets you enjoy everyday activities or pleasures of life such as:

Man Smiling Pointing at Smile
  • Eating: Having missing teeth, swollen gums, or painful mouth ulcers can make your meals less enjoyable.
  • Talking: Numerous dental problems, including crooked or missing teeth, can impact your speech.
  • Smiling: Misaligned, discolored, or cracked teeth can take your confident, sparkling smile away. This can dent your self-esteem.

Most of these oral problems can reduce your quality of life at home, school, or work. If you lose several working days due to a dental complication, it may affect your finances.

Your education could be impacted if you miss classes to receive treatment. As for social participation, both children and adults with noticeable teeth anomalies usually have minimal, less fulfilling interactions with their peers.

Tips for Maintain Good Oral Health

By maintaining good oral health, you can optimize your overall mental and physical wellbeing. Here are some tips to practice proper oral hygiene:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice every day using fluoride toothpaste to prevent gum disease, tooth decay, etc.
  • Floss or clean between your teeth once a day
  • Avoid tobacco smoking to prevent dental issues like tooth decay  
  • Minimize snacking on sugary foods that could harm your teeth over the long run
  • Emphasize proper nutrition every day
  • See your dentist at least twice a year for a comprehensive dental checkup and antibiotic cleanup
  • In case you need dental treatments like aligners or braces, use custom-fit appliances supplied by a licensed practitioner
  • Get treated for diseases that expose you to dental issues
  • If a family member has Alzheimer’s or poor memory, you can remind them to brush and floss their teeth regularly
Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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