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Examining the mouth-body connection

Dentists have long known there is a strong relationship between oral health and general health.

For example, tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs not only affect overall health but oral health as well. People who suffer from dry mouth, whether from age, disease or medications, are at increased risk for tooth decay. And if you have oral pain or cannot eat properly, you won’t get the nutrition your body needs to stay healthy.

The mouth is often examined to diagnose, make a prognosis, treat and intervene on a host of diseases. Oral health must be considered an important part of overall health but scientists are still studying how closely the two are connected.

For example, some researchers have found that periodontal disease is associated with cardiovascular disease, stroke and bacterial pneumonia. Other research has found that pregnant women with periodontal disease may be at increased risk for delivering babies that are pre-term, have low birth weight or both.

Although reports suggest that periodontal disease may contribute to these conditions, it should be noted that just because two conditions occur at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other.

Scientists are examining what happens when periodontal disease is treated in people who have other health problems. Two conditions that occur together may be caused by a third factor. People who smoke or use alcohol are at increased risk for periodontal disease and other conditions, such as oral cancer.

What does this mean for dental patients? Given the potential link between periodontal disease and systemic health problems, preventing the disease may turn out to be an important step in maintaining overall health. In most cases, this can be done with good daily oral hygiene (brushing and flossing) and regular professional care.

Tell your dentist about changes in your oral health, including any recent illnesses or chronic conditions. Provide an updated health history including medication use, both prescription and over-the-counter products. And if you smoke, talk to your dentist about options for quitting.

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