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Gum Disease: A Risk Factor for Many Health Concerns


Periodontal disease – commonly referred to as gum disease – is a common, yet easily prevented condition. With the proper care from qualified dental professionals as well as daily brushing and flossing habits, the bacteria that cause gum disease can be controlled. In the United States, almost half of all adults have some form of periodontal disease. Complicating the picture is this: a growing body of evidence suggests that untreated gum disease can lead to other, seemingly unrelated, health conditions – some of which may have the potential to be life-threatening. 

What is Gum Disease?

Our gums serve to protect delicate tissues by forming a seal around the bases and roots of teeth. When we eat or drink, food particles and sugars collect on the teeth, including between the teeth and under the gum line. When food particles build up on teeth, this is referred to as plaque, a sticky substance that is filled with harmful bacteria. 

Healthy gums are light pink in color. Inflammation from the buildup of plaque can result in a condition known as gingivitis, which causes the gum tissues to become dark pink or reddish. In severe cases, the gums can become tender or painful and can bleed during brushing and flossing. If left unchecked, gingivitis can result in a more serious condition called periodontitis, which can result in tooth damage or loss as the supporting structures of the teeth are affected by bacterial growth. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that as many as 50% of all adults in the United States have some type of gum disease, including both gingivitis and periodontitis. 

The Link Between Gum Disease and Other Health Issues

Inflammation is a common symptom of gum disease. The human body uses inflammation as a protective response mechanism in the presence of anything irritating, including pathogens like bacteria or viruses. Over time, inflammation from one area – in this case, the gums — can spread to others, and eventually may cause tissue damage as well as the formation of other diseases.

There is another link between gum disease and more serious health concerns. When the gums are constantly fighting a bacterial infection, such as in gingivitis or periodontitis, important resources are being committed by the body, potentially weakening the immune system and permitting entry of even more harmful pathogens. 

Gum Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers have pinpointed the presence of a certain type of protein called beta-amyloid as one of the hallmarks of the cognitive disorder known as Alzheimer’s disease. Experiments conducted on patients showed that one of the pathogens responsible for periodontal diseases was present in the brains of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as well. This pathogen was shown to increase the production of beta-amyloids as an immune response.

Another study linked periodontitis and tooth loss with other cognitive declines; in the study, older men’s risk of developing a cognitive impairment rose with increased tooth loss resulting from gum disease and dental caries, or cavities. 

Gum Disease and Heart Disease

There may also be a link between heart diseases and gum disease. As discussed earlier, inflammation from gum disease can eventually spread to other tissues, including organs like the heart. The presence of harmful bacteria can also hasten the formation of dangerous inflammation in the heart; pathogens can be spread by the circulatory system, and the body responds by inflaming affected tissues. Researchers investigating the link between gum disease and heart disease have found a bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis, which is one cause of periodontal diseases, in the arteries and heart tissues of patients with heart diseases. 

Gum Disease and Increased Cancer Risks

A recent study conducted by researchers supported by the Helsinki University Hospital Research Foundation in Finland showed that those individuals with gum disease are at a higher risk of developing some forms of cancer. In a large study group comprised of over 68,000 people and taking place over 10 years, a strong association between gum disease and cancer was discovered. Several different types of cancer showed significant increases in prevalence among those with gum disease, including:

  • Lung cancer
  • Gastric cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Cancers of the head and neck

One type of cancer that stood out was pancreatic cancer; individuals with untreated gum disease were substantially more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, which is often fatal.

Like in other diseases associated with gum disease, inflammation and bacterial infection/transmission to other tissues were pinpointed as potential culprits.

Breaking the Link Between Gum Disease and Life-Threatening Health Conditions

Gum disease is common and affects about half of all adults in the U.S. Thankfully, it is easily treated and controlled. Oral hygiene practices, including daily brushing, flossing, and the use of antimicrobial mouthwashes, can eliminate the presence of harmful plaque and disease-causing bacteria. Regular checkups at the dentist also form an important defense against gum disease. Dentists are able to provide the diagnosis and treatment of gum disorders before they can result in tooth loss, not to mention the formation of more serious health conditions. 

With good oral hygiene and the help of qualified dental professionals, the link between gum disease and serious or fatal health concerns like heart disease, cancer, and cognitive disorders can finally be broken.