Dental professionals consider periodontal disease — an inflammatory condition of the gum and bones surrounding the teeth — a dangerous health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of Americans aged 30 or older (about 64.7 million people) have periodontitis, the advanced form of periodontal disease. However, the medical community suspects the dangers of periodontal disease stretch beyond the mouth, as they have discovered strong connections between periodontal disease and other health issues.
Body’s response to bacteria
While periodontal disease is an inflammatory disease initiated by bacteria, the immune response of the patient also plays a vital role, according to Dr. John Ferrin, a periodontist and owner of Ferrin Periodontics in Medford. “Some patients who brush once a day and don’t see a dentist for 10 years may have decay, but the bone looks good. That patient’s body recognizes the bacteria and toxins in the mouth and has no inflammation,” he says. However, he explains another person could floss and brush every day, get their teeth cleaned regularly, and still have bone loss around the teeth because their body has a harmful inflammatory response that destroys the bone. “Basically, periodontal disease is bone loss around the teeth that’s started by bacteria and finished by the body’s response to that bacteria.”
Bacteria linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s
In addition to destroying the bone around your teeth, research has found a strong link between periodontal disease and systemic health, according to Ferrin. During a recent Alzheimer’s disease study, he says researchers took samples from the brain and spinal cord of living and deceased Alzheimer’s patients and found over 90% had the remnants of gum bacteria in the brain and spinal cord. “These bacteria are only associated with gum disease, so now we know that the bacteria in periodontal disease does not stay in the gums; it travels throughout the body,” he says. Also, he explains that scientists believe inflammation caused by periodontal disease may be connected to other health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Research is linking oral bacteria to places in the body where it was never supposed to be, and it’s manipulating inflammation, says Tommie Kell, an expanded practice dental hygienist and owner of Compassionate Dental Wellness in Jacksonville. “The bacteria take advantage of the deep pockets that are starved of oxygen. They begin to multiply and make their way into the bloodstream,” she adds, noting it’s similar to microorganisms which live in the deepest parts of the ocean without oxygen. “The bacteria found at the bottom of periodontal pockets are tough bugs too. And now they’re floating in your bloodstream to your vital organs.”
Oral hygiene critical
Kell and Ferrin agree that prevention is key. “You must brush and floss regularly and visit your hygienist routinely. Not only can a hygienist measure and watch for any inflammation, but they can customize a home care routine to fit your needs,” says Kell.
For Ferrin, optimal home care is an absolute must. He says to think of your dentist or hygienist as a teammate. “You can’t go to the hygienist and have them clean your teeth, and then you only floss once a week. You must brush and floss regularly at home.”
However, there are other treatment options available. Kell explains a hygienist can perform scaling and root planing to remove bacteria and toxins from the infected pocket in an effort to rid the area of inflammation and promote healing. There are also lasers and antibiotics that help with bacterial reduction, she adds. “In the advanced stages, a periodontist can perform gum surgery, laser therapy, complete a bone graft or grow bone in the affected area.”
A silent killer
Ferrin and Kell believe periodontal disease is the silent killer of teeth. “Periodontal disease isn’t painful, so it could be happening right now, and you may not feel it. If you’ve been told you have deep pockets in your mouth, are over 50 years old or have a dental implant, you should see a periodontist,” says Ferrin.