Your oral health is fundamental to your overall health.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on living healthier lifestyles, so we can remain healthy and active for as long as possible. When we think about adjusting our lifestyles to become healthier, however, we rarely plan to improve our oral health. Studies are repeatedly showing that this is a mistake; your mouth is just as much a part of your body as your heart is, so it can also have a massive impact on your health. This article explains how gum disease affects your health.

Your gums play an incredible role in the health of your teeth and in the health of your entire body. Sadly, gum health in America is sorely neglected, with 32.4% of adults reporting that they never floss and 37.3% saying they floss irregularly—that means that 69.7% of adults don’t floss properly! This neglect shows.

Nearly half of all Americans who are 30 or above have gum disease, and periodontitis is the biggest cause of tooth loss in America. Gum disease doesn’t simply impact your teeth, though. Studies are showing that it can have a number of wide-ranging effects on your entire body. Here are a few of the ways that gum disease affects your health.

Heart Health

Over the last several decades, there have been many studies exploring the connection between heart health and gum disease. While there isn’t direct proof that gum disease causes heart disease, studies show a definite link between the two conditions. This link has led many doctors to believe that gum disease increases your risk of cardiovascular disease or a heart attack by increasing the inflammation response in your body.

Inflammation is important during infections, as it helps fight off bacteria and helps your body to heal, but chronic inflammation irritates your blood vessels and may encourage the growth of plaques and trigger blood clots. As a result, your risk of having a heart attack increases. Even though causation hasn’t been proven beyond a doubt, this makes leaving gum disease untreated a major risk, especially for people who are older or are already at risk for a heart attack.

Gum disease can also directly result in an infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves called endocarditis. This happens when the bacteria in your mouth find their way into your bloodstream and latch onto your heart. Most people’s immune systems destroy the bacteria without a problem and prevent endocarditis, but not always.

People who have heart defects, damaged or artificial heart valves, or a history of endocarditis are at a higher risk for contracting this dangerous infection. Without prompt treatment, endocarditis can be life-threatening and this just shows how gum disease affects your health.

Stroke

A new study suggests that gum disease may also increase your risk of a stroke. It does this in the same way that it likely increases your risk of having a heart attack: by increasing inflammation in your body for an extended period of time.

In this study, researchers took samples of clots from 75 ischemic stroke patients and found that 79% of the clots contained DNA from oral bacteria. When they compared the blood clot samples with other samples they’d taken from the same patients, it was found that the clots had significantly higher levels of oral bacteria in them than the other samples.

Just like the studies surrounding heart disease and gum disease, this study makes it clear that the oral bacteria have a role to play in the clots, otherwise they wouldn’t be present in them.

It’s not clear, however, whether the oral bacteria is a “bystander” or a direct cause of the strokes. Until it’s clear, it’s much safer to simply care for your oral health just like you would any other aspect of your health, preventing and treating gum disease quickly.

Pregnancy Complications

There are also studies that suggest that gum disease affects your health, to be more specific, pregnancy health. How?

Gum disease can have an impact on pregnancies when oral bacteria makes it into the bloodstream, increasing the risk of women going into premature labor and having babies with a low birth weight. This is never ideal, as babies who are born prematurely or with a low birth weight are more likely to suffer from a range of health problems immediately after birth and later on in life.

Unfortunately, hormonal changes during pregnancy make pregnant women more likely to develop gum disease, so staying on top of your oral hygiene during pregnancy is more important than ever.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Thanks to a new study, there is now significant direct evidence that gum disease may play a part in causing Alzheimer’s disease. In this study, researchers found Porphyromonas gingivalis, a common bacteria that causes gum disease, in the brains of the mice used in their experiment and in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Studying the mice revealed that P. gingivalis caused their brains to create more beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that builds up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Additionally, they found that the toxic enzymes of P. gingivalis, called gingipains, were linked to the presence of both tau and ubiquitin, which are proteins that are thoroughly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. This held true in both mice and human patients.

The good news is that focusing on P. gingivalis has enabled researchers to begin developing a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s that focuses on attacking gingipains and has already seen some success in clinical trials. While flossing alone probably won’t prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s, it’s likely that it’ll help decrease your risk of developing the disease; at the very least, it certainly won’t hurt.

No part of your body exists in a vacuum, so staying healthy means taking care of every aspect of your health, including your oral health. In the long run, committing yourself to a good oral hygiene routine may be just as important as exercising and sticking to a healthy diet. If you suspect you already have gum disease, the good news is you can often solve it quickly with a trip to Dr. Sadeghi and good oral hygiene.

Even an incredibly thorough routine will likely take no more than 10 minutes out of your day; that’s significantly less time than it takes to get in a good workout or to cook a healthy meal. Despite the small time investment involved in maintaining your oral health, you’ll likely see its benefits—smaller dental bills and a longer, healthier life among them—for years to come.