Blood Pressure High? Maybe It’s Time for a Dental Appointment!
In modern medicine, oral health has traditionally been treated as a bit of an afterthought—separate from the bulk of medical specialties, and underfunded compared to other aspects of healthcare. Some Medicare programs partially cover routine dental and periodontal care, but many people are left without coverage—and therefore, oral health care tends to slide to the bottom of their healthcare to-do list.
This disparity results in part from policymakers’ fear of the cost of providing oral care coverage. But in fact, the Centers for Disease Control of Prevention (CDC) estimates that annually, the U.S. loses $6 billion in productivity resulting from oral health problems, which also raise the overall cost of senior health care.
We’ve long known that certain common health conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease and acid reflux, change the oral environment in ways that promote increased tooth decay and gum disease. Other health conditions such as dementia, arthritis, stroke and Parkinson’s disease can make it harder to brush and floss. Even some of the medications seniors take can increase the risk of gum disease and tooth decay.
Yet in fact, the connection between oral health problems and other health conditions goes both ways. The relationship is not simple, and scientists are working to fully understand it. For example, a recent study from the University College London found a strong connection between gum disease and high blood pressure. The research team reported that gum disease (periodontitis) is linked with a greater risk for high blood pressure (hypertension)—from 22% for moderate gum disease, up to 49% if gum disease is severe.
“We observed a linear association—the more severe periodontitis is, the higher the probability of hypertension,” said study author Prof. Francesco D’Aiuto. “The findings suggest that patients with gum disease should be informed of their risk and given advice on lifestyle changes to prevent high blood pressure, such as exercise and a healthy diet.”
The study authors said that some of the same underlying factors might be at the root of both gum disease and hypertension. Those could include genetic risk and systemic inflammation, as well as smoking and obesity.
Another study, this one published by the American Heart Association, showed that people who have gum disease do not respond as well to medications designed to keep their blood pressure at a safe level. Said study author Dr. Davide Pietropaoli, “Physicians should pay close attention to patients’ oral health, particularly those receiving treatment for hypertension, and urge those with signs of periodontal disease to seek dental care.”
Hypertension isn’t the only health condition that is worsened by poor oral health. Tooth and gum disease are also linked to:
- Malnutrition. Tooth loss, painful teeth and gum disease make it harder to eat properly. In turn, poor nutrition is linked with a host of other health problems.
- Heart disease. Keeping the teeth and gums healthy reduces the growth of bacteria that can lead to systemic inflammation, which raises the risk of heart attack.
- Memory loss. Oral bacteria from poor mouth hygiene is linked to brain tissue degeneration, brain inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
- Social isolation. People with poor oral health might withdraw from interacting with others, leaving them at higher risk of loneliness and depression. Loneliness is stressful—and that stress can harm the heart and brain.
Modern dentistry has come a long way in helping seniors retain a healthy smile. Restorations, implants and periodontal care yield great results, and for patients who have lost most or all their teeth, modern dentures can be quite comfortable. As we grow older, keeping our teeth and gums healthy can be a challenge—but it’s worth it!
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Discuss an oral health routine that’s right for you with your doctor or dentist.