SCIENCE

Beyond the mouth: how cavities and oral inflammation affect your long-term health

Betty Zou, Ph D.

Every couple of years, a new mega study is released that examines worldwide mortality and disability caused by major diseases, injuries and risk factors. The 2015 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study pulled together data from over 100 countries to look at how many people were affected by which conditions in what countries. The condition that topped the list of most common diseases? Untreated cavities.

Based on the 2015 GBD Study, an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world are affected by untreated cavities in their permanent teeth. This isn’t the first time that the oral condition has received top honors. It also ranked as the most prevalent disease out of 291 conditions surveyed in the 2010 GBD study. Furthermore cavities are the most common chronic disease in childhood.

Cavities, or dental caries as they’re called in medical parlance, are caused when teeth enamel is eroded by acid, thereby allowing bacteria to infect the underlying structures. An untreated cavity will not go away on its own; instead, the decay worsens and spreads until eventually, the entire tooth is weakened and lost.

Despite their pervasiveness, cavities are often overlooked as contributors to overall health. First there are the clear and immediate consequences like tooth pain and tooth loss, both of which can impact your ability to chew and eat. Then there are the psychological and social repercussions like poor self-esteem and social exclusion that directly impact mental health and quality of life.

Less obvious are cavities’ effects on long-term health, which can manifest months or even years later. When dental caries are left to fester, the infection can spread from the tooth to the gums and underlying tissues, triggering gingivitis and periodontal disease. These dental infections have been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. One reason this is thought to be due to the inflammation triggered by oral bacteria. The immune cells produced by the body to fight infection sometimes mistakenly target healthy blood vessels, leading to heart attack and stroke.

In other cases, it’s the microbes themselves that are directly responsible. Bacteria from oral infections have been known to enter the bloodstream and attack other sites in the body. For example, the cavity-causing bacteria Streptococcus mutans has been shown to be one of the main culprits behind infective endocarditis, a condition in which the tissue lining the heart becomes inflamed. Without treatment, the inflammation can damage the heart valves and lead to life-threatening complications.

Poor oral health has also been linked to pulmonary diseases, particularly in individuals with a weakened immune system. Breathing and swallowing can sometimes suck harmful oral bacteria into the lungs where they can cause pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bronchitis.

While cavities can be treated easily, prevention really is the best strategy because even medical procedures used to treat cavities carry risks to your overall health. For example, a 2010 study found that the rate of stroke and heart attack increased significantly in the first four weeks after an invasive dental treatment such as a tooth extraction. The risk of these two cardiovascular events returned to baseline values six months after the dental procedure. The researchers note, however, that the long-term benefits of good oral health on general health outweigh the temporary jump in cardiovascular risk.

Your eyes may be a window into your soul but your mouth is a reflection of and important contributor to your overall health and well-being. Take care of it and you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

Betty Zou, Ph D.

Scientist turned science writer and communicator. I turn complex scientific concepts and studies into clear and engaging content for diverse lay audiences. Previous work include blog posts, news articles and releases, patient and customer profiles, feature length stories, donor reports and marketing materials. My areas of expertise are molecular biology, microbiology and microbiome-related topics but I have also written extensively about other health and medicine topics such as cancer, cardiology and trauma.

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