How Dental Health Affects Overall Health

Published August 26th, 2020 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Updated Date: Feb 19th, 2022

Most people know that they are supposed to visit the dentist twice a year, but many do not heed this advice.

Dentist visits are important for keeping your mouth and teeth healthy, of course, but they also play a larger role in keeping you healthy overall.

Researchers have determined that there is a significant link between dental health and overall health and well-being, so making some effort toward good oral health and professional dental care is important.

Unfortunately, nearly 100 percent of adults have at least one dental cavity, and approximately 15 to 20 percent of adults between the ages of 35 to 44 have severe gum disease.

If you haven’t been taking great care of your teeth thus far, you might be interested in learning how dental health and overall health are linked and what you can do to improve your dental health. 

How are dental health and overall health linked?

While it might seem like the health of your mouth has very little to do with the health of the rest of your body, researchers and healthcare professionals are increasingly understanding that the two are strongly linked.

The mouth, along with the gut/intestinal tract, is packed with bacteria that forms what we call the oral microbiome.

The oral microbiome is made up of approximately 700 different species of microorganisms (including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa) that live in the mouth. 

While there are many different types of microorganisms residing in the mouth, about 30 to 70 species of bacteria are found in large quantities; these bacteria are both good and bad and impact our overall health in various ways.

Bacteria found in our bodies impact many of our major daily functions, including digestion, immunity, aging, and more, and they contribute to many health conditions.

Normally, the good and bad bacteria in our mouths are kept in a precarious balance that results in the good bacteria overpowering the bad bacteria. 

However, with poor oral hygiene, an unhealthy diet, or the use of certain medications, the bad bacteria can multiply out of control and begin to cause problems that lead to oral infections and problems, including tooth decay and gum disease.

Gum disease is linked to the incidence of many different illnesses, including diabetes, respiratory disease, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis.

The conditions are so closely linked that people with gum disease are three times as likely to suffer from a stroke as people with healthy gums and twice as likely to die from a heart attack. 

What diseases and conditions are linked to dental health?

Many different diseases and conditions are linked to oral health, including some that are serious and potentially fatal. Poor oral health can impact or contribute to the following conditions:

  • Cardiovascular disease: Although scientists do not have a complete understanding regarding how oral health impacts cardiovascular disease, it appears that stroke, clogged arteries, and heart disease are more likely to occur in patients with poor oral health, possibly due to the increased inflammation and infections caused by rampant bacteria.
  • Pneumonia: When dangerous bacteria in your oral microbiome are not kept in check, they can eventually spread to your lungs. Bacterial pneumonia and other respiratory diseases can be caused by bad bacteria in the lungs, which usually travel there by way of mouth.
  • Endocarditis: Endocarditis is a condition that is characterized by an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers or valves, known as the endocardium. This infection typically occurs as a result of bacteria spreading from another part of the body, such as the mouth, through the bloodstream, and into the heart. People with poor oral health are more likely to suffer from endocarditis.
  • Pregnancy and birth complications: Women with periodontitis, or gum disease, are more likely to have premature births or give birth to infants with low birth weights.

Other conditions may contribute to poor oral health. These conditions include:

  • Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is a condition in which bone mineral density declines and people are at increased risk of suffering from fractures and other bone damage. Osteoporosis is tied to tooth loss and periodontal bone loss, both of which play a role in your oral health. This is due partially to the use of medications to treat osteoporosis, some of which may carry a risk of damage to the jaw bone.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes lowers the body’s ability to fight infection, which puts your gums and teeth at risk. People who have diabetes are more likely to have gum disease, and those that do have gum disease are more likely to experience severe forms of the condition than those who do not have diabetes. Additionally, gum disease is linked to a reduced ability to control blood sugar levels. Practicing good oral hygiene and limiting gum disease helps to improve blood sugar control. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Many people with HIV and AIDS suffer from oral health problems, including painful mucosal lesions. People with HIV and AIDS are more likely to experience oral health problems than those without the virus.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease: Although Alzheimer’s disease is primarily linked to mental decline, it is common for patients with the condition to experience declining oral health as their condition progresses.

Eating disorders, certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and an immune system disorder, called Sjogren’s syndrome, that causes dry mouth are also linked to oral health and even oral cancer. 

What are signs of poor oral health?

If you hold off on a dental exam until you notice symptoms of poor oral health, it may already be too late to hope for healthy teeth.

The American Dental Association recommends visits every six months because this schedule generally allows dentists to catch oral health problems while a dental treatment like dental sealants is still effective.

X-rays can also be conducted to check the health of your teeth.

If you experience any of the following signs of poor oral health, you should schedule an appointment with a dental health professional right away, before the problems begin to affect your overall health. 

Symptoms of oral health issues include:

  • Sores, tender areas, or ulcers in the mouth that do not heal within one to two weeks
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Pain or toothache
  • Receding gums
  • Swelling of the face and cheek
  • Cracked or broken teeth
  • Swollen or bleeding gums after flossing or brushing
  • Newly developed sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures of food or beverages
  • Loose teeth
  • Pain while biting or chewing
  • Clicking of the jaw
  • Frequent dry mouth

If you experience any of the listed symptoms in conjunction with a high fever or swelling of the face or neck, you could be experiencing a medical emergency and should seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

What causes or contributes to poor dental health?

As previously noted, your mouth is teeming with the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that make up your oral microbiome.

While most of these microorganisms are harmless in small quantities, some can be detrimental to your health if allowed to flourish. 

When a person eats a diet high in sugar, they create conditions in their mouths where bad bacteria that produce acid can reproduce and spread.

The acid produced by these bacteria causes the enamel of the tooth to break down, causing cavities in your teeth. 

Gingivitis is caused by the accumulation of plaque on your teeth and near the gumline. Plaque can be combated with a toothbrush and some floss, but without that good oral hygiene, it begins to build up, causing your gums to become inflamed.

Over time, this inflammation can cause the gums to start to pull away from the teeth, which allows pockets full of pus to form. When this occurs, it is diagnosed as periodontitis, a type of advanced gum disease. 

Many different factors contribute to the development of cavities, gingivitis, and periodontitis, including:

  • Smoking
  • Eating sugary snacks and drinking sugary beverages frequently
  • Using medications that reduce the amount of saliva in the mouth
  • Infections like HIV or AIDS
  • Acid reflux and associated frequent vomiting
  • Poor brushing habits and oral hygiene
  • Diabetes
  • Family history or genetics
  • Hormonal changes in women

What can I do to improve my dental health?

Fortunately, proper oral health care isn’t hard with a healthy lifestyle and consistent hygiene.

There are many steps you can take to improve your dental health and reduce your risk of dental and oral disease, including:

  • Brushing your teeth at least two times per day using a fluoride toothpaste
  • Lowering your sugar intake
  • Quitting the use of tobacco products
  • Seeing a dentist twice per year for regular checkups and cleanings
  • Flossing your teeth at least once per year
  • Eating a diet packed with fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking fluoridated water

By taking these simple steps, even as an older adult, you’ll be able to protect your dental health and possibly improve your overall health!