Gum diseases are one of the most common long-term illnesses in humans. They affect between 20% and 50% of the world’s population. Plaque is a sticky layer of bacteria that builds up on teeth.
Gum disease can be treated and fixed in its early stages (gingivitis). But some people get a form of gum disease that gets worse over time and can’t be fixed. When this disease gets worse, teeth fall out. There is more and more evidence that gum disease makes people more likely to get other serious health problems.
Here are a few common health problems that are connected to gum disease and how they are linked.
Several large studies and meta-analyses agree that gum disease that is moderate or severe is strongly linked to dementia. For example, one study found that people with chronic gum disease for ten years or more had a 70% higher chance of getting Alzheimer’s than people without gum disease. Research has also found a link between gum disease and a six-fold drop in cognitive ability.
At first, it was thought that this link was directly caused by bacteria. People with Alzheimer’s disease had bacteria called P. gingivalis in their brains. This bacteria is often found in people with long-term gum disease. There were also bacterial enzymes called gingipains that are thought to make gum disease worse by keeping the immune response from turning off, which keeps inflammation going for longer.
But it’s not clear if the link is caused by bacteria in the brain, a changed immune response, or something else, like damage from systemic inflammation. But taking care of your teeth could be one way to lower your chance of getting Alzheimer’s.
Gum disease is also a strong risk factor for heart disease.
In a large study of more than 1,600 people over 60, gum disease was linked to an almost 30% higher risk of having a first heart attack. This link was still there even after researchers took into account other health problems (like diabetes and asthma) and lifestyle choices (like smoking, education, and being married) that are known to make a person more likely to have a heart attack.
More recent research has shown that systemic inflammation caused by long-term gum disease causes the body’s stem cells to make a group of neutrophils that are very quick to react (a type of early defence white blood cell). These cells could hurt the lining of the arteries by hurting the cells that line the arteries. This could cause plaques to build up.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes can lead to gum disease, and having gum disease for a long time can make you more likely to get type 2 diabetes.
There has been a lot of research on the processes that link the two diseases, and it’s likely that inflammation caused by each disease affects the other. For example, people with type 2 diabetes are more likely to get gum disease because their gums are more inflamed. Gum disease has also been linked to insulin resistance and poor insulin signalling, both of which can make type 2 diabetes worse.
Several clinical trials have shown that a deep dental cleaning can help diabetics control their blood sugar for several months. This shows that the two diseases are linked.
Many types of cancer are also more likely to happen if you have gum disease. For example, patients with a history of gum disease had a 43% higher chance of getting oesophageal cancer and a 52% higher chance of getting stomach cancer.
Researchers have also found that people with chronic gum disease are 14–20% more likely to get any kind of cancer. The risk of pancreatic cancer was also 54% higher, according to the same study.
It’s not clear why these two people are together. Some people think it has to do with inflammation, which is a factor in both gum disease and cancer. Inflammation changes the environment that cells need to stay healthy and work properly. This makes gum disease and tumour growth worse.
Improving gum health
In its early stages, gum disease can be stopped and even fixed.
Some things that put you at risk for gum disease, like your genes, can’t be changed. However, you can change your lifestyle to lower your overall risk. For example, you can help by eating less sugar, staying away from tobacco and alcohol, and reducing your stress.
It’s also important to know that some drugs, like antidepressants and drugs for high blood pressure, can make you produce less saliva, which can make gum disease more likely. People who take these medicines need to take extra care, like using special gels or sprays to make more saliva or making sure to brush their teeth with extra care.
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