Studies show connection between dental, physical and mental health

It's a common misconception that good oral health is more about self-esteem and a great smile than keeping your entire body healthy and strong. But the truth is, healthy teeth and gums are absolutely vital to your overall health, and not just to preventing cavities, bad breath, and the next toothache.

Neglected teeth are known to lead to issues such as low self-esteem and social anxiety, proven by the fact that many studies have shown that poor tooth and gum health can have serious harmful effects on multiple areas of the body. This includes possible heart, brain and metabolic problems.

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Some conditions associated with poor oral hygiene and dental health include:

Headache and neck pain

Anyone who has experienced recurring headaches or chronic neck pain knows that the pain can be quite debilitating. However, one reason many people don’t consider these issues is the way the teeth and jaw meet – also known as “dental occlusion.”

When your upper and lower teeth don't fit together well (collectively known as a “bite” problem), this misalignment can lead to a range of problems, including recurring headaches, broken teeth, premature tooth loss, and neck pain , temporomandibular joint pain, the structure that moves your jaw, and more.

During regular dental exams, your dentist can usually detect and take steps to correct jaw alignment problems. This may help relieve problems caused by dental bites.

Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and now is a good time to mention the growing body of research linking poor mental health to poor oral health. A 2021 study in the journal Oral Health Frontiers explores the connection between mental/emotional health, oral health, and access to oral health care.

Visits to the dentist in the past year were more common among study participants with good mental health, the study found. Researchers in the study also found “significant associations” between dental problems such as premature tooth loss and tooth decay and a range of common mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whether poor oral health causes mental health problems or vice versa is still being studied, but there appears to be a link.

Cardiovascular diseases

As with Alzheimer's disease, research has shown a link between bacteria associated with poor oral health and various forms of cardiovascular disease (a range of problems involving the heart and blood vessels). People with gum disease are two to three times more likely to have serious cardiovascular events, including heart disease and stroke, according to research from Harvard University. Research into this link continues, but the increased risk appears to be due to widespread inflammation caused by bacteria associated with periodontal disease entering the bloodstream.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful autoimmune disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks healthy cells. People with this disease often experience joint inflammation and chronic, sometimes debilitating, pain.

Although research into the relationship between rheumatoid arthritis and oral health is ongoing, there appears to be a link between the disease and oral bacteria associated with poor oral hygiene and gum disease.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Periodontology found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis were twice as likely to develop gum disease as those without gum disease and to have severe periodontal disease. People with the disease are more likely to develop severe rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Many of the above conditions are uncommon, and their association with oral health is still being studied. But if you think teeth and gum problems have nothing to do with your overall health, you might be wrong.

So, take the necessary steps to not only keep your body healthy but also your teeth and gums. In addition to maintaining a bright, healthy smile, you can reduce your risk of serious health problems later in life.

Dr. Brad Mokris is co-owner of Coastline Orthodontics, which has locations in Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach and McClenny.

This guest column expresses the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Times Union. We welcome different opinions.

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