Oral health is more closely linked to general health than first thought, and it’s time to stop underestimating the importance of good dental hygiene.
That is the message Professor Jorg Eberhard has been pushing this week, his first as the inaugural chair of Lifespan Oral Health at Sydney University.
“Our mission is to put the mouth back into health,” Professor Eberhard told The New Daily.
“We have a great body of evidence that oral health affects general health. For example, we know that periodontitis also leads to higher risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke).”
Professor Eberhard says Lifespan Oral Health will work in close quarters with the University’s Charles Perkins Centre for global health problems.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare highlights gum disease as the fifth-most prevalent health problem in Australia. Australians spend $4.7 billion on dental services each year, an increase of 15 per cent from last decade.
Poor gums a risk for other problems
Gum disease is usually caused by a build-up of plaque on teeth and along the gum line. The immune system tries to get rid of this plaque with an inflammation response, and Professor Eberhard explained that it is this response that leads to other health problems.
“When the gum releases inflammatory mediators, bacteria are transported into the blood system, and in the blood they increase the systemic inflammatory load.”
“This systemic inflammation is a risk factor for the development of diabetes, cognitive decline and other major health problems.”
Several studies have also shown advanced gum disease is a risk factor for heart disease. While this relationship is yet to be fully identified, some researchers have suggested bacteria from infected gums can dislodge, enter the bloodstream, attach to blood vessels and increase clot formation.
Preventing and treating gum disease
Dr Peter Alldritt, Chairman of the Oral Health Committee at the Australian Dental Association, says a big sign of gum disease is bleeding after brushing teeth.
“People often ignore this or don’t realize it’s a sign of gum disease. Bad breath or loosening of the teeth are also symptoms, so if you notice any of these don’t ignore them, go to the dentist and get a diagnosis.”
Dr Aldritt also explained gum disease is preventable and, its early stages, reversible with good oral hygiene.
“Brushing twice a day, morning and night for at least 2 minutes is important, but you also have to clean between your teeth in some way. Not a lot of Australians are very good at flossing, which you can do with floss or tiny brushes that go between the teeth.”
“Soft toothbrushes are most effective, because you can brush closer to gum line and remove more plaque without damaging the tooth. If you brush too hard you’ll cause the gums to recede, and aggravate the existing problem.”
Dr Aldritt says smoking and diabetes are also risk factors for gum disease.
“Smoking changes the blood flow to the teeth and gums, so healing is impaired. And the diabetes link works both ways: there’s a link between being diabetic and having periodontal disease, and if you’ve got gum disease, it will worsen your diabetic stability.”
Once people have more advanced gum disease – known as periodontitis – they can no longer brush their way back into good oral health.
“(At that stage) you need periodontal treatment, done by either dentists or periodontists,” said Professor Eberhard.
This treatment ranges from non-invasive measures such as removing bacteria from the teeth or antibiotics, to surgical treatments like bone and tissue grafting when the infection has destroyed the bone and gums around the tooth root.