Why Gum Disease Could Be More Serious Than You Think

Periodontal disease, or gum disease, affects nearly half of Americans aged 30 or older and 70% of those over 65, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Poor oral hygiene, smoking, hormonal fluctuations, and genetics can all contribute to this condition. Not surprisingly, stress plays a role, too. Gum disease also tends to affect people with ill-fitting bridges, defective fillings, crooked teeth, or certain disorders, such as diabetes.

Also known as periodontitis, this condition starts as gingivitis, or gum inflammation. If left unaddressed, it can progress to gum disease and cause complications, explains WebMD. Gum disease symptoms may include swollen or bleeding gums, bad breath, loose teeth, and bite problems. You may also notice that your teeth are overly sensitive, warns the CDC. Early treatment may help reverse gingivitis and prevent gum disease from getting worse, says WebMD.

If you're still on the fence about seeing your dentist, consider the potential risks. Without proper treatment, periodontitis can affect your whole body — not just your teeth and gums. 

Periodontitis can lead to heart disease and stroke

Poor dental hygiene and other factors can lead to dental plaque, a sticky substance consisting of lactobacilli, mutans streptococci, and other bacteria. These microorganisms can erode the tooth enamel, causing increased sensitivity, cavities, and diseases, according to 2006 clinical research published in BMC Oral Health. In the long run, they can make their way into your bloodstream and trigger inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and vascular damage to the brain and heart, explains Harvard Medical School. Lifestyle factors, such as cigarette smoking, can further increase these risks.

Gum disease can double or triple your odds of developing cardiovascular problems, warns Harvard Medical School. If left untreated, it may increase plaque buildup in the arteries and lead to heart disease. Again, chronic inflammation is the culprit. In some cases, periodontitis can also contribute to diabetes and bloodstream infections that affect the heart, notes the Mayo Clinic.

The best thing you can do is to prevent these problems in the first place. The experts at Harvard Medical School recommend brushing and flossing your teeth daily to prevent or reverse gingivitis, the first stage of periodontal disease. Flossing helps remove the bacteria responsible for plaque buildup, keeping your teeth and gums healthy. 

Gum disease, a risk factor for arthritis and lung disease

Clinical evidence suggests that gum disease may also contribute to arthritis, among other inflammatory diseases. For example, a 2016 study featured in Science Translational Medicine. identified a potential link between Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, an oral bacterium, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This pathogen affects the white blood cells, causing your body to release pro-inflammatory proteins that can attack the joints. Other studies found that people with RA have double the risk of gum disease compared to healthy individuals, reports the Arthritis Foundation. What's more, periodontitis can worsen arthritis symptoms because of its inflammatory effects.

This dental condition can affect your lungs, too, suggests a 2013 review published in the Journal of Medicine and Life. As it turns out, oral bacteria can enter the respiratory system and cause a host of problems, from pneumonia to chronic bronchitis to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Researchers believe that oral pathogens may produce inflammatory compounds that can destroy the lining of the lungs. Another study found that gum disease may reduce lung volume and limit airflow, causing breathing difficulties (via the European Respiratory Journal).

These findings indicate that gum disease can affect your heart, lungs, bones, blood vessels, and other tissues, leading to poor overall health. On the positive side, there are steps you take to prevent it or stop it from getting worse. Simple things, such as having regular dental exams and flossing your teeth at least once a day, can make all the difference.