Dental and Medical Health: More Interconnected Than You Think
Researchers have found many connections between one’s oral health and one’s health in general. Not only can dental problems affect the rest of your body, but also, dental health offers clues about overall medical health. In this article, we’ll take a look at these two important ways that the dental and medical fields intersect.
How Can Dental Problems Affect Medical Health?
Dental issues can affect, worsen, and even cause a number of medical conditions. For example, endocarditis is an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers or valves, which is typically caused by germs from another part of the body—often the mouth. Bacteria from your mouth can percolate into the lungs, leading to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia. In addition, there is some research that cardiovascular disease might be linked to inflammation and infections that trace back to oral bacteria.
On the flip side, there are several medical conditions that affect your dental health. People with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing gum disease due to their bodies’ weakened resistance against infection. Osteoporosis is linked to tooth loss and periodontal bone loss, while Alzheimer’s patients see a decline in their oral health as the disease progresses. Other medical conditions that researchers are beginning to link to dental wellness include Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, eating disorders, and certain cancers.
What Can Dental Health Tell Us about Overall Medical Health?
We’ve established that one’s dental health can offer important clues about one’s health in general. But what does this mean exactly? It means that the mouth speaks volumes about our medical health: Our teeth contain valuable biomarkers, or measurable indicators of the presence and/or severity of a certain illness.
To see biomarkers in action is to see an impressive feat of modern medicine. Dental and medical researchers have already discovered several remarkable biomarkers within the mouth. For example, scientists identified markers in the teeth of patients who went on to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in adulthood. These markers are present as early as childhood, and show a difference in the way that ALS patients metabolize metals. Levels of metals such as chromium, nickel, and zinc were significantly higher in the teeth of ALS patients than in the control group. This biomarker means there is a possibility that doctors may be able to intervene before the onset of the disease, potentially preventing it by treating metal dysregulation.
This is not the only breakthrough in the area of dental biomarkers. In 2018, researchers discovered a biomarker in baby teeth that can be used to predict the development of autism. This biomarker was also related to dysregulation in metabolism—specifically, cycles involved in zinc and copper metabolism. Researchers say this biomarker is about 90 percent accurate in detecting autism spectrum disorder in fetal and early childhood patients.
Dental biomarkers can even be an indicator of mental disorders, which are a major factor in one’s overall health. Scientists found that patients suffering from deficit schizophrenia—a type of schizophrenia in which patients experience at least two negative forms of the disease, like amotivation and asociality, on a consistent basis—have a wider oral palate than people suffering from other forms of the disease and people without it. This could potentially create a much better understanding of the disorder and how it develops.