Periodontal disease has long been known as the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. But the damage isn't confined to the mouth. In the last few years, gum disease has been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, pregnancy complications, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and dementia. Moreover, for people who have both gum disease and diabetes, effectively treating one condition can help the other as well, according to the May 2016 issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch.
Like the intestines, the mouth houses complex ecosystems of bacteria, known as the oral microbiome. And just like in the gut, different types of bacteria compete for space. When all the species are in balance, the gums are protected from disease-causing bacteria. Disturbing this balance provides an opening for pathogens to invade, causing periodontal disease. Once periodontal disease is under way, the bacterial balance is further disrupted.
Pathogenic bacteria may initiate periodontitis, but they aren't the only — or even the major — culprits. "Yesterday we used to think that bacteria destroyed tissue; today scientists understand that it's inflammation caused by the bacteria that destroys tissue," says Dr. Thomas Van Dyke, chair of the Department of Applied Sciences at the Harvard-affiliated Forsyth Institute. That is, the disease-causing bacteria trigger a response from the body's immune system, and the white blood cells summoned to eradicate them produce substances that not only destroy bacteria but also damage the cells in the gum tissue.
"It's an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship," says Dr. Van Dyke. But, he adds, inflammation — which also plays a big role in all the conditions linked to periodontitis described above — seems to be the key link.
Brushing and flossing, regular dental checkups and cleanings, refraining from smoking, and following a healthy diet — all of which help to prevent bacterial infection or reduce inflammation — are still the best ways to reduce the risk of gum disease.
Read the full-length article: "Why your gums are so important to your health"