Gum Disease: Public Health Enemy No. One?

Share Article is campaigning to educate the public about periodontal disease and its link to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The statistics are dramatic and may get patients to think twice about skipping dental appointments or quality time with their dental floss. Please provide your summary

Tender receding gums aren't healthy either. In fact, these symptoms are the body's way of waving a neon yellow flag that reads 'Danger Ahead!'

The dental professionals have launched a concerted effort in 2011 to educate the public about gum disease, its connection to serious illness, and the importance of preventive oral hygiene.

Major gum disease affects between 24 and 33 percent of American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 7,500 U.S. citizens die from oral and throat cancers annually with an additional 35,000 new cases of oral cancer identified each year. The five-year survival rate of these cancers is only about 50 percent.

While some people know that even simple gingivitis damages teeth and causes breath problems, most don't realize there's more than just their smiles at stake with gum disease, said Dr. Allan Melnick, a clinical dentist in Encino, Calif. Periodontal disease can affect virtually all major organs of the body.

"Bleeding gums aren't normal," says Melnick, a former UCLA dentistry professor. "Tender receding gums aren't healthy either. In fact, these symptoms are the body's way of waving a neon yellow flag that reads 'Danger Ahead!' "

A growing body of evidence shows periodontal disease's link to serious health problems, including:

  •     Stroke
  •     Asthma
  •     Diabetes
  •     Heart attack
  •     Premature birth
  •     Kidney problems
  •     Pancreatic cancer
  •     Blood-related cancers
  •     Oral and throat cancers

Research showing the link between gum disease and other illnesses has prompted an increased focus on comprehensive treatment at FocusedCareDental in 2011. Office visits include the latest diagnostic tools and treatment, patient education, screenings for oral cancers, and biopsy when needed. The office's website and blog have been updated continually in the first quarter of 2011 to provide dental information and research findings for patients and website visitors.

"I have seen gum disease and its health ramifications for years," says Melnick. "Take diabetes, for example. Gum disease involves bacterial infection, which can affect blood sugar levels, making it harder for diabetics to control symptoms. It becomes a vicious cycle. I think it's imperative that diabetics get regular assessment and treatment for their gum disease and get the facts. There's no time to waste in taking control of one's health."

Research shows that diabetics are prone to more severe gum infections and lose teeth much more often than non-diabetics, says Melnick. The CDC estimates that 26 million - or 8 percent - of Americans have diabetes.

Pregnant women also may suffer from gingivitis, which has been linked to early labor and low-birth weight in addition to other dental issues. Cardiovascular disease is another concern for men and women with infected oral tissue. Studies indicate that subjects with gum disease have twice the risk of coronary artery disease when compared to subjects with healthy smiles.

Researchers at Nottingham University in Britain believe that pathogens in diseased gums may enter the blood stream, where they attach to fatty acids. The fatty acids coat the walls of arteries, promoting blood clot formation and subsequent heart attacks and stroke. dental hygienists recommend people see their dentists at least every six months for teeth cleaning and gum evaluation - more often if there is a persistent health or dental problem. Tarter is removed, and diseased gums may be treated topically with a time-released antibiotic like Arestin to eliminate bacteria colonies. In severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to save teeth, stop bone loss and halt bacterial infections that can compromise the immune system.

Harvard and London's Imperial College sponsored a study of the health records of 50,000 men over the course of 21 years and concluded that there was a significant correlation between gum disease and immune system weakness. It was noted that gum disease was linked to a 33 percent increase in lung cancer risk, a 50 percent rise in pancreatic cancer risk, a 30 percent increase in blood cell cancers, and a 50 percent inflation of kidney cancer risk. Smoking worsened the statistics even more.

Perhaps the most ominous periodontal statistic was the one linked to dental bone loss. Research statisticians found that for every millimeter of bone lost, the chance of neck and head cancers quadrupled in people with gum disease.

Individuals with severe gum infections also are more susceptible to respiratory tract disease, including emphysema and pneumonia. It's thought that bacteria in the oral cavity get carried into the respiratory tract through inhalation and into other parts of the body through the blood.

"Further study is necessary," said Melnick. "But, there are some things health professionals know now without a shadow of a doubt. Good dental upkeep is more than a matter of cosmetics and comfort. A person's life may hinge on it!"


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Allan Melnick
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