In the past, we’ve delved into the importance of good dental health on this site, as well as its sister publication, Aging Defeated. But after hearing the dental woes of my older (and younger!) friends and family members I believe the topic needs to be covered once again.
The message simply isn’t getting out that the health of your teeth and gums is vital to the health of your body.
In fact, more new research reveals how common dental problems can result in serious health issues including heart attack, stroke, diabetes, even Alzheimer’s disease. Let’s take a look at the latest research…
First, the good news…
I recently came across some dental health statistics that were encouraging: Research shows older adults are keeping their teeth longer.
Overall, the prevalence of both partial and total tooth loss in seniors has decreased from the early 1970s until the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, from 1999-2004.1
Experts attribute this good news to better hygiene and fluoridation, which means folks keep their teeth longer than in the past. (I’m not a fan of fluoridation. I’m just repeating what some authorities say.)
In a New York Times article, Dr. Stephen Shuman, who leads the Gerontological Society of America’s oral health group, explains it this way, “Decades back, losing your teeth and getting dentures was the expectation.”2
I remember well when many of the older generation in my home town had false teeth. And frequently they weren’t that old. They were in their late 40s or 50s.
Dealing With Aging Teeth
These day things are much better, but aging still takes its toll on teeth and gums. As you age, gum tissue naturally recedes, exposing roots to decay, and all the crunching and grinding of chewing food does a number on your tooth enamel. This opens the door for bacteria of all kinds to infect your mouth.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about one in five Americans age 65 or older have untreated cavities, and two in three have gum disease.3
And sadly, when we retire and lose our employee-funded dental care plan is precisely when we need it most!
Dentists like Dr. Shuman warn that skipping dental care can have serious long-term consequences. What’s more, poor oral health (and fewer teeth) affects your appearance, how you speak, what foods you can eat and your general quality of life. But the biggest risk of poor dental health is to your immune system.
Why Poor Dental Habits Can Have a Ripple Effect on Health
Do your gums often get inflamed and sometimes bleed? This is called gingivitis. Good dental care and daily cleaning can reverse it.
However, if left unchecked gingivitis can lead to periodontal disease, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that stimulates the body’s immune system.4 And when bacteria and inflammation enter the body, they leave the door wide open to a host of health concerns.
Let’s examine the science behind some of these dental dangers…
Increased Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
Next time you consider skipping a dentist appointment or don’t want to bother with daily brushing and flossing, consider this: A statistical review of research showed that people with periodontal disease were three times more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease.5
Researchers believe the systemic inflammation that results from periodontal disease compromises the blood brain barrier in a number of ways that cause inflammation in the brain.
The inflammation leads to poor blood flow within the brain and a buildup of tau protein—both hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease—and results in diminished brain cell communication and a decline in memory function.
Greater Chance of Stroke
Doctors have long linked chronic infection to a number of cardiovascular problems. Recently, a new study published in the Journal of The American Heart Association became the first to report a direct link between oral bacteria and stroke.
Researchers examined saliva and arterial blood from 75 patients with an average age of 67 years who’d had a stroke. They found bacterial DNA – mostly oral bacterial DNA – in the blood of 84 percent of those patients.
Researchers concluded, “Repeated transient bacteremia, caused by poor dental care or bacterial infections, may trap pathogens in atherosclerotic plaques and promote rupture of the plaques.” Rupturing plaques, of course, are a cause of stroke.
The researchers went on to say that “regular dental care should be emphasized in the primary prevention of acute ischemic stroke.”
Of course, you won’t hear most doctors and specialists talk about dental care when providing patients with a list of heart health guidelines, but here it is, plain as day in the research.6
Increased Cancer Risk
Two studies have linked periodontal disease to an increased total cancer risk.7 Recently, scientists explored this cancer risk in older women.
The 2017 study examined the dental health of postmenopausal women. Researchers studied fourteen years of health data on 65,869 women, ages 54 to 86 years gathered by the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. They found that women who had periodontal disease were at an increased risk for breast, esophageal, gallbladder, skin, colon and lung cancers.8
While the research didn’t confirm the reason why, scientists speculate that periodontal pathogens could enter into the bloodstream and reach distant sites of the body.
Greater Risk of Diabetes
Researchers have also found a link between diabetes and periodontal disease.9 The research shows that the more severe a diabetic’s periodontitis, the greater trouble he or she will have controlling their blood glucose levels.
Scientists are trying to understand the link, but they believe it involves aspects of immune functioning and inflammation.
They concluded by saying, “Controlling diabetes is likely to reduce the risk and severity of periodontitis. Furthermore, evidence suggests that resolution of periodontal inflammation can improve metabolic control.”
How to Care For Your Teeth, Even on a Budget
The most obvious first step in preventative daily tooth and gum care is brushing and flossing, plus regular visits to the dentist.
Now I understand that many folks shy away from dental visits due to expense. I did some research and found some cost-cutting strategies.
According to the American Dental Association, if your dentist recommends a high cost treatment, you may be able to negotiate on the price. For instance, if you pay up front, the cost could be reduced.10
Or consider visiting a dental school clinic – which can be found on the American Dental Associationwebsite. Supervised by licensed dentists, dental students get hands-on experience and you save a lot – sometimes as much as 70 percent off some procedures.
Other low-cost dental providers may be available in your area. For more information, visit ToothWisdom.com. Still another option is to get your dental work done in Mexico. Despite that country’s negative image – largely driven by poverty and drug violence – the dental practitioners are trained to U.S. levels and cost a mere fraction of U.S. prices.
In the meantime, be vigilant about oral healthcare. Dentists often say that the earlier they catch a problem, the less expensive the care. I’ll also add, the less risk to your health. Remember, saving your smile will have long-term health benefits.
- N Am J Med Sci. 2015 Jun; 7(6): 241–246.
- Wen BW, Tsai CS, Lin CL, Chang YJ, Lee CF, Hsu CH, et al. Cancer risk among gingivitis and periodontitis patients: a nationwide cohort study. QJM. 2014 Apr;107(4):283–90. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] Michaud DS, Liu Y, Meyer M, Giovannucci E, Joshipura K. Periodontal disease, tooth loss, and cancer risk in male health professionals: a prospective cohort study. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Jun;9(6):550–558.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]