By Chris Iliades, MD Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III MD, MPH
"You’ve got a cavity."
Ouch -- no one likes to get bad news in the dentist’s chair. But good dental health is a reflection of good health overall -- and how well you take care of your teeth may reflect how well you take care of the rest of your body. That’s why your dentist can tell you a lot more about your health than simply the state of your mouth. A routine dental exam may reveal problems with your bones, heart, or digestion because certain warning signs live inside your mouth.
And not only can routine dental check-ups reveal certain health problems, they may also prevent them. In fact, a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association found that people who received regular teeth cleanings and scrapings had a 24 percent lower risk of heart attack and 13 percent lower risk of stroke compared to people who didn’t get such dental care.
So the next time you visit your dentist, she could clue you in to one of these seven health conditions. How’s that for lip service?
Did you know that adopting mouth-healthy habits may ultimately keep your heart healthy, too? Research has found a surprising number of links between the state of your dental health and your heart.
"Inflamed gums and loose teeth can be warnings of heart disease," says Alyson Hope Koslow, DDS, a clinical assistant professor of restorative dentistry at the University of Illinois Chicago. That’s because if you have a gum disease like periodontitis, the bacteria in your gums could travel to your heart and contribute to coronary artery disease. Bacteria may also increase your risk for heart disease by contributing to the formation of clots or further plaque build-up in your arteries that can interfere with blood flow to the heart. One Swedish study found that people with more pockets of infection of the gum around the base of the tooth had a 53 percent increased risk of heart attack compared to those with the fewest pockets.
And as the recent AHA study found, regular dental cleanings will safeguard your smile and protect your ticker.
The most common dental health condition for diabetics? Gum disease.
"Gum disease, bleeding gums, and loose teeth are all warning signs of diabetes," Dr. Koslow says. "Diabetics also tend to have a slower healing time."
Infections at your gum line can worsen the state of your diabetes and can contribute to the risk for heart disease and stroke, so it’s important to take steps to keep your mouth healthy (and your diabetes under control).
Osteoporosis is characterized by the weakening of bones, and it's most common in post-menopausal women. But could your dentist be clued in to your thinning bones before you are?
"Osteoporosis does not cause changes in the teeth, but it doescause changes in the bone that supports the teeth," Koslow explains. "This may show up as a receding gum line and loose teeth."
If your dentist sees any oral signs of osteoporosis, let your medical doctor know right away.
This gradual loss of cognitive function is often signaled by confusion, loss of memory, disorganization — and an unhealthy mouth. "People with early dementia may show all the signs of poor oral hygiene," warns Koslow.
If you notice that a loved one is neglecting her oral health, skipping dental appointments, and having problems managing daily routines, talk to her doctor.
By nature, people with anorexia or bulimia usually try to hide their condition — but a dentist may be the first one to spot it.
That’s because eating disorders can cause poor nutrition, which can lead to oral conditions like bleeding gums and dry mouth. In addition, "erosion on the insides of the front teeth may be a sign of forced vomiting in a young person with bulimia — stomach acid wears away at enamel and also makes teeth more sensitive," says Koslow.
"Erosion of enamel from the insides of teeth, especially the upper back molars, is a clue to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)," Koslow says. Reflux of stomach juices can happen at night — but you may not be aware of it until your dentist sees its effects on your dental health.
Reflux disease can cause erosion of the esophagus and may even lead to esophageal cancer, so let your doctor know if your dentist sees possible signs of reflux. Treatment can include elevating the head of your bed, not eating in the hours before bed, and taking acid blocking medications.
What’s the big deal about dry mouth? "Saliva helps to wash away bacteria and debris that lead to cavities and gum disease," Koslow says.
And if you’re producing too little saliva, your dentist will know. Dry mouth may be caused by medications or it may be a sign of a disease such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease. The solution? Up your fluid intake, and your dentist may even suggest a saliva substitute.