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It’s Dental Health Week, and the Australian Dental Association wants to alert everyone to the close links between what goes on in their mouths and far-reaching effects on the rest of the body.

Dental and medical studies show that ignoring oral health can have serious impacts elsewhere, including previously unknown health risks. For example, gum disease (suffered by one in three Australian adults) increases the risk of serious cardiovascular events, Type 2 diabetes and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

The latest research shows that people with advanced gum disease (periodontitis) have a much higher risk of a heart attack than people without it.

Inflammation issues

Another study conducted recently by Professor Joerg Eberhard, an oral health scientist and Chair of Lifespan Oral Health at the University of Sydney’s School of Dentistry, found that not brushing your teeth caused systemic inflammation which could prompt serious cardiac events.

‘We asked a cohort of healthy young people with no cardiovascular risk factors, to not brush the same quadrant of their mouths, that’s seven teeth, for three weeks, to see what effect it would have on their health,’ explained Professor Eberhard.

‘After three weeks we measured the inflammation in that quadrant of the mouth and we found the inflammation caused by not brushing there, had reached other parts of their body.

‘But as soon as they started brushing that quadrant again, C-reactive protein, a risk marker for heart attacks, went down to normal levels. It’s another clear and concerning link between mouth health and whole of body health.’

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Pregnancy issues

Studies are also being conducted into the effects of periodontitis on pregnant women. Some early data suggests that if the gum disease is treated, the risk of having a premature baby declines.

The Australian Dental Health Association’s Dr Mikaela Chinotti said, ‘These serious health conditions and events can be significantly reduced if people regularly look after their mouths.

‘That means brushing twice a day with a small amount of fluoridated toothpaste, flossing daily, eating a diet low in sugar and seeing your dentist regularly for checkups. These typically include a scale and clean which is vital for removing the bacteria that build up and start the process of periodontitis and inflammation.’

Another recent international study by a group of cardiologists and dentists showed that treatment for gum disease reduced blood pressure normally only achieved through medications, because high blood pressure can come about due to a loss of elasticity in blood vessels and this loss can be caused by inflammation from gum disease.

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Heart attack links

It seems lifestyle also plays a big role in oral health.

In a three year study of people from Queensland with poor oral health including gum disease, Professor Eberhard and colleagues found that by adopting better teeth brushing techniques, going regularly to the dentist and adopting a healthier diet all led to reduced systemic markers which are predicters for a heart attack.

The ADA’s Dr Chinotti said that periodontitis signs can be difficult to spot and may include bleeding from the gums and very little or no pain, and without treatment, the condition can worsen over time until affected teeth may finally become loose.

Risk factors include older age, smoking, drinking alcohol above recommended levels, the presence of diabetes and poor oral health practices.

“While periodontitis damage can’t be reversed, you can stop its progression by seeing a dental practitioner for treatment, including professional cleaning of the teeth above and below the gums which the patient cannot access, which halts the disease and reduces inflammation,’ she said.

More advanced cases may need surgical treatment performed by a specialist periodontist under a local anaesthetic to access difficult to reach areas under the gums.

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‘Time to put the mouth back in the body’

‘Regular dental visits are the best way to keep on top of your oral health and detect and manage conditions such as periodontitis, in their earliest stages of development,’ said Dr Chinotti.

‘This is in addition to those other oral health basics that add up to only about six minutes a day but which protect the health of your whole body and not just your mouth.

‘For too long mouth health has been separated from body health. It’s time to put the mouth back in the body,’ she said.

‘The ADA hopes that by making this mouth and whole-of-body relationship more widely known to Australians, they’ll understand oral health is an integral part of general health,’ said Dr Chinotti.