By Darla Scheidt
Taking care of your teeth and gums is about much more than having a healthy mouth and a dazzling smile. Your mouth can also provide valuable insight into the condition of your body as a whole. Here are five important health clues to look for:
Clue #1: Inflamed, bleeding gums
If you are diabetic and have swollen, bleeding gums, then there's a good chance you're also suffering from some form of gum disease. People with poorly controlled diabetes are at a much higher risk of getting gum disease than people who do not have diabetes—more than twice as likely according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's because people with diabetes are more susceptible to bacterial infections and less resistant to the germs that infect the gums. It is also more difficult for people with diabetes to heal after an oral surgery or other dental procedures. Conversely, research has shown that effectively treating gum disease and other oral infections in people with diabetes can help improve blood sugar levels and manage other complications associated with diabetes.
Clue #2: Disintegrating teeth
With age, regular wear and tear of the teeth may result in reduced enamel, but not all cases of disintegrating enamel are a part of the normal aging process. If your teeth crack or crumble, it could also be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux. With GERD, acid in the stomach rises back up into the esophagus. That same damaging acid can make its way to the mouth, which eventually dissolves layers from the teeth. Loss of tooth enamel is permanent and, without detection and proper treatment, can result in the rapid decay of the affected teeth. A routine check-up with your dentist can help identify signs of eroding enamel caused by acid reflux in its earliest stages.
Clue #3: Persistent mouth sores
It's normal to get sores in your mouth from time to time, especially if you bite your cheek or sustain an injury. But if your sores don't go away after a few weeks (or keep coming back), it's probably time to visit your dentist for an evaluation. Persistent mouth sores, particularly those that are not a healthy pink color, may be a sign of oral cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 21,000 men and 9,000 women a year are diagnosed with oral cancer in the U.S. Being over the age of 60 or a smoker also puts you at a higher than normal risk for oral cancer. What's even more alarming is that oral cancer has a very low survival rate, often because the warning signs are detected too late. That means regular self-exams and visits to your dentist are imperative to catching the disease before it has progressed to its most advanced, deadliest stages.
Clue #4: Receding gum line and loose teeth
Believe it or not, your dentist could be the first health care professional to detect signs of osteoporosis, not your regular physician. That's because tooth loss, a receding gum line and ill-fitting dentures are all predictors of the early stages of osteoporosis—a disease that most commonly affects women over the age of 50 and is characterized by the gradual thinning of bone density. Because it presents few warning signs, osteoporosis is often hard to detect until bones have become so frail that a fracture occurs. However, a dentist can observe changes in the bones that support the teeth during a routine exam, which is a good indicator of weakening bones in other parts of the body.
Clue #5: Plaque and gum inflammation
Did you know that the plaque that builds up on your teeth is the same plaque that can cause a heart attack or stroke? Research shows that inflammation of gum tissues is a major contributing factor in developing heart disease. This happens when oral bacteria from plaque in the mouth caused by gum disease dislodges and enters into the bloodstream, which can lead to clot formation and thickening of the arteries, thus increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. If you suffer from heart problems, your dentist can help by routinely examining your gums for signs of infection and instruct you on the best ways to ward off gum disease for a healthy mouth and heart.
Overall, the message is clear: A healthy body starts with healthy teeth and gums. Your mouth may hold life-saving clues to your total body wellness that can prevent unnecessary suffering down the road with early detection and preventive care. Brushing, flossing, proper nutrition and regular visits to your dentist are all imperative to maintaining optimal oral health and avoiding a slew of serious health problems.
Darla Scheidt is the Marketing Director for Grove Dental Associates, a multi-specialty group dental practice in the Chicago Western suburbs. With 40 years of practice experience and over 30 doctors, Grove Dental's offices stay on the cutting edge of dentistry.