Illustration by Elaine Liu/Greatist.com
Upwards of 6 billion bacteria live inside the average human mouth. (Kiss me, now?) The wrong buildup of microorganisms in the mouth can lead to infections, tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease. Oral bacteria can also travel into the blood stream, causing or contributing to an array of diseases that affect more than just that smile. Regular dental upkeep—flossing, brushing, mouthwashing, waterpicking, and chewing sugar-free gum—keeps these bad boys under control.
Say "ahhh" – The need-to-know
Think it's just those pearly whites that benefit from dental hygiene? Think again. Not only does oral upkeep stave off mouth odor, cavities, and gum problems, it's also linked to life satisfaction and overall happiness. Maintaining those pearly whites pays off, big time. Not convinced? Take a page from the perils of poor oral hygiene for incentive to maintain a cleaner mouth. Below are six diseases that either contribute to or are affected by neglecting the dentist's advice.
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- Alzheimer's disease. Impaired cognition doesn't bode particularly well for remembering to brush, floss, and gargle. People suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are at a higher risk for poor oral health, primarily because they're less able to independently attend to it. Many medications currently used to treat dementias also interfere with the mouth's saliva production, which raises the risk of mouth and throat issues even higher.
- Cardiovascular disease. The hoards of bacteria festering in our mouths can easily infiltrate our bloodstreams. Bleeding gums, mouth sores, and other scrapes or bruises between our cheeks provide a green light for mouth microbes to wiggle their way into the circulatory system, inflame the tissues that line our heart (a condition called endocarditis), contribute to plaque build up in the arteries, and precipitate aneurysms. Tooth loss has also been linked to cardiovascular problems. Need we say more?
- Diabetes. The relationship between dental health and diabetes goes both ways: Oral infections interfere with blood sugar levels and diabetic symptoms set the stage for these infections to occur. An inflamed mouth is a breeding ground for chemical signals that interfere with sugar and fat metabolism by screwing with insulin secretion. Pesky proteins called cytokines build up around irritated or swelling tissues and can leak into the bloodstream to further throw off diabetics' already impaired insulin secretion, marring the proper metabolism of sugar and fat found in the diet. Diabetics' hyperglycemic state only worsens this inflammatory cycle: Too much sugar in the blood mars the structure of protein molecules in the blood, leading to swelling of tissues in the mouth…and elsewhere.
- Osteoporosis. While this might not be a worry in younger years, what we do now directly influences bone health later in life. Bone-mineral density has been shown to predict periodontal disease—and vice versa. A recent study tracking the rates of periodontal disease in postmenopausal women for five years found that the severity of their mouth problems and osteoporosis increased at a similar rate. The researchers believe this has much to do with how mineral loss makes teeth more susceptible to the bad sides of oral bacteria.Granted, women seem to be at a higher risk for osteoporosis and its related oral health concerns. But that's no excuse for guys to shy away from the toothpaste aisle. The bones of both sexes can benefit from brushing up. (Actually, guys may need to try and do it a bit more.)
- Premature birth. Women who give birth to babies well before their due date tend to have more mouth infections than those who deliver babies closer to their ETAs. Molecular signals released by inflamed gums (cytokines and a species called C-reactive protein, to be exact) sneak out of the mouth and into the placenta via mom's bloodstream. Damage done to still-in-the-oven offspring signals to her body that it's time to get this puppy out, albeit ahead of schedule.
- Stress. Life stressors at work, home, or in the environment at large can interfere with our mouth's ability to tolerate even normal levels of plaque. One study found that stressed out moms had higher rates of cavities and fewer teeth than their less stressed, child-free counterparts (whose mouths were no less nastier, by the way—both groups had the same average rates of tooth plaque). Another found that people working in high stress environments also had higher rates of cavities and other periodontal problems. The culprit(s)? Those inflammatory agents that puff up your body's tissues. Stress makes them crop up too. Do your mouth—and the rest of yourself—a favor and take a breath, please.
Put your money where your mouth is – The takeaway
Caring for those pearly whites (and the bacteria-laden box they inhabit) is crucial for overall health. Beyond yellow stains and icky breath, a dirty mouth can cause or significantly worsen some very serious health concerns.
Here are some tips to protect your body and mind, via your mouth.
- Brush up. Twice a day, for two minutes is the recommended amount for those interested in reducing plaque, avoiding cavities, and staving off gingivitis. Bristles can't get everything. Floss at least once a day to make sure those between-teeth spaces don't become home base for yesterday's lunch. Regular flossing cuts down on the harder to reach plaque that leads to periodontal problems.
- Rinse with antimicrobial mouthwash for 30 to 60 seconds each day and see bad breath, plaque and that gingivitis-causing oral bio-film melt away. (Just remember not to swallow.)
- Get a new toothbrush at least once every four months. Those mouth microbes also build up on bristles and handles. While many are harmless, some can cause colds, flus, viruses, and infections.
- Don't ignore that pile of friendly reminder postcards. Pay your dentist a visit once every six months to catch cavities, gum disease, decay, or oral cancer before they get out of hand. That cleaning won't hurt either. (Actually, it might. But it's worth it.)
- Chew a stick of sugar-free gum after meals or snacks to promote the human mouth's most trusted health maintenance mechanism: saliva. Frequent chewers have fewer cavities, less plaque, and stronger teeth. Added benefits include a brain power boost.