While the connection between oral health and general health is well documented, it’s not generally discussed at well or dental visits. It should be: An April 2022 report from The National Institutes of Health found that 90% of adults ages 20 to 64 experience tooth decay, while almost 50% of adults 45 to 64 have gum disease. 

Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at Cleveland Clinic, says oral diseases have a large association with overall health. Research has shown that there’s an association between your dental health habits and whether or not you develop diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke, or heart disease.

When we don’t take care of our oral health, says Roizen, dental caries (tooth decay) and gum disease can enter the bloodstream, contributing to plaque disruption in the arteries, or promoting inflammation in the brain and other areas of the body. “Flossing your teeth is the equivalent of 8,000 steps a day,” says Roizen. “Which is pretty darn powerful.”

Think of the body as a human donut

In 2019, the World Health Organization named tooth decay in permanent teeth as the most common health condition in its Global Burden of Disease report. Oral diseases affect about 3.5 billion people worldwide

What we often don’t realize is that this isn’t bad just for our mouths, but our bodies. “People think of their heads and teeth as disconnected from the rest of their bodies, but they’re not,” says Dr. Maria Ryan, DDS, Ph.D. in oral biology and chief clinical officer at Colgate-Palmolive Company. Viewing the body as one connected system helps reinforce how it can influence all areas of wellness and the importance of maintaining good oral hygiene, says Ryan.  

Naveem Jain, founder of Viome, a company that builds personalized toothpaste and supplements based on a person’s microbiome, compares the human body to a donut. “There is a tube that goes through us,” says Jain, noting that billions of microbes enter the body through that tube as we breathe. “When the protective barrier is broken, you have system inflammation in the body. If you have a leaky gum, it’s the same concept. If our heart is bleeding or even our fingers, we’d be trying to figure it out. If our gums are bleeding, eh whatever. In both cases, all of your microbes have a free path into the bloodstream.”

That path is where trouble starts, says Ryan. It’s no surprise then that in one study, published in Hypertension, an American Heart Association journal, found that  people with gum disease were twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times as likely to have a stroke than those without inflammatory gum disease. “People think, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? I can lose a tooth,’” says Ryan. “Well, it could be worse than that.”

Poor oral health can also impact our confidence

If the prospect of developing heart disease or diabetes isn’t enough to get you to the dentist, maybe the idea of looking good will. After all, dental hygiene is also front and center in all of our human interactions. If you’re self-conscious about bad breath or missing teeth, it might affect your ability to move through the world with confidence. “That can impact someone’s ability to get a job, or their relationships,” says Ryan. “It’s important on so many levels.”

And weak teeth can impact the way you’re able to address more mundane aspects of your health. Ryan uses the example of a healthy diet. If a physician recommends eating more fruits and vegetables to a patient with poor oral health, the patient may feel stuck eating foods such as apples, carrots, and broccoli if missing teeth and cavities are a factor, Ryan says. 

When all of these factors impede a person’s ability to be social and engaged on a personal level, their mental health can suffer. One 2022 study documented the connection between poor oral health and increased anxiety and depression.

How to protect your oral health and overall well-being

A big part of addressing the oral health crisis is prevention and education, says Ryan who leads Colgate-Palmolive’s five-year, $100 million Know Your OQ (oral health quotient). It aims to shift some of these statistics and increase awareness on the importance of simple and consistent oral hygiene. 

The American Dental Association and WHO recommend six basic steps for preventing gum disease: 

  1. Brush twice a day for two minutes
  2. Floss once a day.
  3. See your dentist every six months.
  4. Limit sugary drinks and snacks.
  5. Avoid all forms of tobacco
  6. Use protective equipment during sports 

It might seem like really basic information, says Ryan, but if everyone was doing it the stats on oral health wouldn’t be what they are. 

Dr. Tien Jiang, a practicing dentist who teaches oral health policy and epidemiology at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, says she takes every opportunity she can to weave education into her interactions with patients so her approach is more preventative than reactive whenever it can be. “Just like high blood pressure, with a lot of dental diseases or concerns—for instance, an early cavity—you can’t feel anything,” says Jiang. “You might not feel anything until it’s advanced. You can have a patient come in and a dentist diagnoses five cavities and they’ve been feeling fine.”

But at that point, the situation has turned urgent and the patient is in tremendous pain—especially in the case of periodontal disease, says Jiang. To add insult to injury the patient now also faces a steep dental bill to cover care and save the tooth. “We have an uphill battle,” she says. “We want to diagnose but there’s always a suspicion that the dentist just wants to make money.”

From Ryan’s perspective, this makes education and normalization of these ideas critical to shift the trajectory of how we frame and prioritize our oral health. 

Relatedly, she says, knowing where to get dental care could also be a barrier. Aside from dental practices, dental schools offer cleanings, as well as federally qualified health centers (FQHC). “Not just preventative strategies, but also the signs and symptoms so if they have disease they go and get it managed. There are so many places to get care.”

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