What Your Teeth Say About Your Health

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on October 7, 2013

Though most of us only think about our teeth when we visit the dentist, chew on this tidbit: Our pearly whites do more than break down food into easy-to-swallow morsels or dazzle people when we smile. Our teeth may provide valuable clues about our health—and the way we live may also affect the health of our teeth, says Anne-Marie Bollen, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor of orthodontics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Your teeth are part of your body, too,” Bollen says.

Here, a look at four ways our teeth may affect our health…and vice-versa.

The Gum-Heart Link. In 2012, a scientific statement from the American Heart Association supported an association between heart disease and periodontal, or gum, disease. But according to the AHA, studies haven’t yet proven that gum disease causes heart disease or stroke. Nor has research shown that treating gum disease will reduce the risk of developing these conditions. However, says the AHA, this doesn’t mean a link won’t be shown down the road.  Both periodontal disease and heart disease are associated with inflammation, says Robert J. Genco, D.D.S., Ph.D., distinguished professor of oral biology and microbiology at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York. That said, it’s best to err on the side of caution.  To prevent gum disease, the American Dental Association recommends brushing teeth twice a day, flossing daily and eating a balanced diet. Also, see the dentist regularly; that way, if you do develop gum disease. it can be treated early on.

Smoking and Tooth Loss. A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association in 2013 found that postmenopausal women who smoked were much more likely to experience tooth loss than women who never lit up. University of Buffalo researchers found that heavy smokers, those who smoked more than 26 pack years, were most affected. (To determine pack years, the researchers multiplied the number of packs smoked per day by the number of years a woman smoked.) Women who smoked two or more packs per day and women with the heaviest pack years of smoking had a sevenfold and 10-fold increased odds, respectively, of losing a tooth because of PD.  “Smoking decreases your ability to resist infection and periodontal disease is an infection that causes tooth loss,” says Dr. Genco, who led the study. “Also the ability to fight PD is suppressed by some of the components in tobacco.”Another reason: Both smoking and PD contribute to bone loss. The weaker your jawbone, which supports and anchors teeth, the more likely your teeth will loosen and even fall out.

Dental Health and Dementia. A 2012 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that men who couldn’t chew properly because they were missing teeth and who didn’t wear dentures had a 91 percent greater risk for dementia than men who were able to chew normally, meaning they had at least 10 upper and six lower teeth. The dementia risk was also 22 percent higher in women but not significantly so. Men with an adequate number of teeth who didn’t brush daily had a 22 percent greater risk for developing dementia; women who didn’t brush daily had a 65 percent greater risk. Also, the risk of dementia was 89 percent greater in men who had not seen their dentist within the last 12 months than in those who had been the dentist two or more times. (It was just 12 percent higher in women who hadn’t seen the dentist.) The inflammation associated with periodontal disease may affect the brain, contributing to dementia, says study co-author Annlia Paganini-Hall, Ph.D., project scientist in the department of neurology at the University of California, Irvine. Also, “if you have fewer teeth and don’t wear dentures, you may have dietary deficiencies that are related to dementia,” she says.

The Hip-Jawbone Connection. If your bones are weak because of osteoporosis, you’re three times more likely to experience tooth loss than women who don’t have the brittle bone disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. That’s because osteoporosis can affect any bone in the body and the jawbone is no exception. “If your bone is becoming less healthy, why would it only be in the hip area?” asks Dr. Bollen.  The bone in your jaw is “affected by the same issues that other bones are affected by,” she says. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that each 0.01mm per year decrease in a certain area of the jawbone increased hip fracture rate nearly threefold.  According to Dr. Bollen, both panoramic dental x-rays and periapical ones (they’re done during routine check-ups) are as effective at detecting osteoporosis as the standard tools used to measure bone density in the hip. The less white a dentist sees in a dental x-ray, the less bone there is in the jawbone and the lower bone density is elsewhere in the body, says Dr. Bollen.  Not all dentists are trained to detect osteoporosis in the jawbone. But if they compare x-rays year to year, “potentially they could see changes,” says Dr. Bollen. (It’s worth asking your dentist how your jawbone looks. If there are more dark areas than light ones, ask your doctor if you need a bone density scan.