The ultimate outcome of uncontrolled periodontal disease is tooth loss but did you know about other factors such as bad breath, heart disease, stroke, or how it may effect diabetes, your respiratory system and even pregnancy?
As the destructive factors of periodontal disease cause the breakdown of bone and connective tissue, there remains no anchor for the teeth, resulting in their loss.
A much less severe but nevertheless distressing problem caused by periodontal disease is bad breath, although coatings on the tongue may contribute more to bad breath than periodontal disease.
But there can be more serious effects than bad breath. Studies have reported that people who have heart disease have a 1.5 - 4 times increased risk for periodontal disease. (The risk is highest for patients with extensive gum disease, bleeding from every tooth.) Acute coronary syndrome, high blood pressure (hypertension), and high cholesterol have also been associated with periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease has also been linked to stroke and to coronary artery disease (CAD). The more severe the periodontitis, the greater the risk for heart problems. Many experts, however, are still not sure whether periodontal disease is a risk factor for stroke or a marker that reflect various risk factors common to both conditions.
A stroke is caused by a loss of blood circulation to areas of the brain. The blockage usually occurs when a clot or piece of atherosclerotic plaque breaks away from another area of the body and lodges within the blood vessels of the brain.
Recent evidence suggests that the inflammatory response may be the common element. This is an over-reaction of the immune system that causes injury to tissues in the body. A common link between patients with both heart conditions and periodontal disease may be elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for the inflammatory response. Some experts believe that immune factors causing this response are released into the bloodstream during periodontal disease and cause injury in the arteries supplying blood to the heart.
Other evidence suggests that the periodontal disease bacteria itself -- particularly P. gingivalis, T. denticola, T. forsythia, and streptococci spp -- may be the main culprit. In 2005, results from the NIH-sponsored Oral Infections and Vascular Disease Epidemiology Study (INVEST) determined an association between cardiovascular disease and the bacteria that cause periodontal disease. In this study, higher levels of periodontal bacteria were associated with thicker carotid arteries (a predictor of heart attack and stroke), regardless of C-reactive protein levels. While this study's findings are an important advance in understanding the relationship between periodontal and heart disease, it is still not clear if periodontal disease actually causes heart disease. Researchers hope that future results from INVEST will clarify this issue.
Experts are still not sure if treating gum disease can reduce the risks of heart disease. Studies have been mixed.
Diabetes is not only a risk factor for periodontal disease -- periodontal disease itself can worsen diabetes. Some evidence suggests that the bacteria that causes periodontal disease may enter the bloodstream and activate cytokines, (damaging immune system factors), which then destroy cells in the pancreas where insulin is produced. Some studies indicate that treating periodontal disease can reduce the need for insulin and improve blood sugar control in some people with diabetes.
Bacteria that reproduce in the mouth can also be carried into the airways in the throat and lungs, increasing the risks for respiratory diseases and worsening chronic lung conditions such as emphysema.
Many studies strongly indicate that bacterial infections that cause moderate-to-severe periodontal disease in pregnant women increase the risk of premature delivery and low birth weight infants. The more severe the infection, the greater the risk to the baby. Research indicates that the bacteria from gum disease, and from tooth decay, may trigger the same factors in the immune system as genital and urinary tract infections. These biologic substances, called prostaglandins and tumor necrosis factor, produce inflammation in the cervix and uterus that can cause premature dilation and contractions. Research also suggests that periodontal disease increases the risk for preeclampsia, a life-threatening disorder that occurs in mid- to late pregnancy and is characterized by high blood pressure.
Experts recommend that women have a periodontal examination before becoming pregnant or as soon as possible thereafter. Because women with diabetes are at higher risk for periodontal disease, it is especially important that they see a dentist early in pregnancy. Experts are still not sure if treating periodontal disease can improve birth outcomes. A 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the treatment does not affect pre-term birth or birth weight. However, the researchers reported that periodontal treatment is definitely safe for pregnant women.
Tracy Merkley is a denturist with the Central Park Denture and Implant Centre in Victoria, BC.