How well you care for your teeth and gums has a powerful effect on your overall health. Neglecting your oral health leads to more than just sore teeth and bad breath — it can open the door to all sorts of health problems, including some pretty nasty diseases like oral cancer. Researchers have found possible connections between gum problems and heart disease, bacterial pneumonia, stroke, and even problem pregnancies.
“You cannot be healthy with an unhealthy mouth any more than one can be healthy with an infected foot,” says Richard H. Price, DMD, spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA) and a former clinical instructor at the Boston University Dental School.
The Role of Diet and Lifestyle in Oral Health
A number of dietary habits and lifestyle factors can affect oral health, including:
“Having a sugar-laden diet will contribute to tooth decay and gum problems, as the bacteria in the mouth thrive in this environment,” producing tooth and gum-destroying enzymes and acids, says Dr. Price, who retired after 35 years as a dentist in Newton, Mass.
Dental care experts have long known that smoking cigarettes and cigars and using tobacco products can cause periodontal disease (gum disease), tooth decay, and oral cancer. Cigars can also cause periodontal disease and throat, or pharyngeal, cancer. “The smoke from tobacco has a toxic effect on gum tissue, and can interfere with blood flow,” Price explains. “Smoking also stains the heck out of teeth, is a direct cause of oral cancer, and can contribute to bad breath.”
“Drinking can contribute to oral problems indirectly by resulting in a dehydrated mouth, which can allow bacteria to run rampant,” Price says. In addition, people who have alcohol addiction issues are probably less likely to consistently follow good dental care habits, he says.
Changes in weight.
For those who wear dentures, changes in body weight tend to affect the way dentures fit, Price says. “Just as weight gain or loss affects the way clothes fit, that gain or loss also affects the gum pads on which dentures rest,” he says. To help maintain a healthy weight and fight tooth decay, the ADA advises people to eat a diet rich in high-fiber fruits and vegetables.
“Some medications, for example, some antibiotics, can cause internal staining of teeth, such as tetracycline staining, depending on the age at which you take them,” says Price. Also, “there are 200 to 400 medications, prescribed or over-the-counter, that have the side effect of drying up saliva. A dry mouth is more prone to gum disease and tooth decay, as well as bad breath.”
Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body
To maintain your oral health — and overall good health — Price says you should see your dentist regularly to head off any problems early. You should also practice good oral hygiene at home by carefully brushing and flossing your teeth regularly in order to prevent plaque from accumulating and causing problems. There is nothing a dentist can do that a patient can’t undo by neglecting their dental care, says Price.