If eyes are the windows to the soul, it would be fair to conclude that the mouth is the doorway to the lungs. The oxygen that passes through this gateway is good stuff when it’s clean and unadulterated from cigarette smoke or toxic pollutants. …Other foreign material in the lungs? Not so good.
Most people know that if you inhale a big mouthful of water, you are going to choke. If you fail to cough it out, you may end up with pneumonia or worse. But, few people think about what oral bacteria can do to the pulmonary system if it gets inhaled into the lungs. Let me tell you, it’s not good news.
A Downward Spiral
Left unchecked, the sticky gunk called “dental plaque” builds up on your teeth, and it’s the perfect breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Infected gums get red, irritated, swollen, may start to bleed, and can even form pus. Tissues recede and teeth loosen. Tooth loss and decay follow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop there. Bacteria from diseased gums may be inhaled into the lungs or enter the blood stream, launching a flood of pathogens and toxins throughout the body.
While researchers are hesitant to be specific about cause and effect, many speculate that oral bacteria also wreak havoc on the immune system. Some pretty solid studies have found a correlation between periodontitis (gum disease) and diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and strokes), rheumatoid arthritis and even pancreatic cancer. More recently, these same oral bacteria have been chief suspects in cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. It has been implicated in pregnancy complications including premature birth and low birth weight, and Case Western University even reported a stillborn birth associated with a mother’s infected gums in early 2010.
Gum Disease and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
COPD, a disease marked by the gradual loss of lung function, caused more than 126,000 deaths in people age 26 and older, according to statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2005. This figure was an 8 percent increase in COPD fatalities over those recorded in 2000. Today, COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States. Pneumonia and influenza, two other pulmonary diseases, caused 52,717 deaths in the United States in 2007. Lung cancer, a leading cause of death worldwide, costs Americans about $10 billion annually.
A recent study, cited in the January 2011 issue of Journal of Periodontology, correlated many of these lung diseases with the presence of gum disease. Researchers in India took a look at 200 human subjects – half of whom had been hospitalized for respiratory disease. The other 50 percent had no history of lung disease. Each participant was given an oral evaluation to determine periodontal health. (Only people with a minimum of 20 natural teeth were assessed.) Study statistics showed subjects with the respiratory diseases had more gingivitis and gum disease. The researchers in that study believe that oral pathogens either increased the patients’ disease risk or triggered an existing propensity for the lung illnesses.
Periodontitis and Cancer Rates
In another study by London’s Imperial College and Harvard University, the health records of 50,000 men were assessed. Subjects with a history of gum disease had a 33 percent higher incidence of lung cancer. A history of smoking made the risk climb even more. Gum disease also was linked to a 50 percent rise in pancreatic and kidney cancer risk and a 30 percent increase in blood cell cancers.
I hope these statistics got your attention. I know they got mine. I think it’s really important that dental professionals and others in the health community keep their eyes on this type of research and support ongoing studies to confirm this possible link. More importantly, the general public needs to be aware that an unhealthy mouth may contribute to serious and possibly fatal systemic disease.
‘Live Your Best Life’
My intention is not to scare you, but to help you “Live your best life,” as Oprah says. While creating and restoring beautiful smiles is a favorite part of my profession, my deepest desire is to see modern dentistry really impact the overall health and quality of life of my patients. Overall, if health advocates can influence people to get into the office for regular cleanings and dental care, I believe we will see pulmonary disease rates fall and maybe even a reduction in cancer statistics.
Everyone can take an active role in disease prevention by eating a healthful diet, exercising, seeing a general practice doctor at least once a year, and seeing one’s dentist and hygienist twice a year. Brushing teeth twice a day and flossing at least once per day are an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. It takes two to three minutes to brush and floss thoroughly; however, most folks spend only 30-40 seconds. Many only brush only once per day, if that. Changing human behavior is difficult, but knowing that proper oral hygiene may extend and improve life may serve as a strong incentive.
Now, if it’s been a while since you’ve paid us a visit, please call (248) 356-8790 to set up your general or cosmetic dentistry appointment. We run a safe, non-judgmental office, so don’t let guilt or dental fears get in the way of your optimal health! Your gums, teeth and whole body will thank you!
So until next time,
Mark W. Langberg, DDS, MAGD