Aug 10, 2010 7:02 PM
Healthy teeth depend on healthy gums. Gums protect the base of the teeth, where connective tissue anchors them to bone. Left untreated, gum problems can lead to tooth loss. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to keep gums healthy.
Gum disease takes two forms: gingivitis and periodontitis.
Gingivitis occurs when bacteria collect in tiny pockets at the gum line, causing inflammation. The most common symptoms are bleeding when teeth are brushed and persistent bad breath. Gingivitis accounts for about 70% of gum disease. Periodontitis makes up the other 30%.
If gingivitis goes untreated, the inflammation can invade connective tissue and even bone. This causes periodontitis.
Symptoms of periodontitis include:
Eventually, even the healthiest teeth can become loose and even fall out.
"Unfortunately, by the time most people notice any of the warning signs of periodontitis, it's too late to reverse the damage," says Sam Low, DDS, professor of periodontology at the University of Florida and president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
That's why regular dental checkups are so important, according to Low. Dentists spot trouble in the form of pockets of inflammation or places where gum tissue has eroded slightly, exposing the root of the tooth.
Unfortunately, not all dentists check carefully enough for gum disease.
"We estimate that only about one-third of general dentists really take the time to really look for gum disease," says Low.
The American Academy of Periodontology works closely with professional dental groups to encourage better detection of gum problems during dental checkups.
Catching signs of gum disease early may be far more important than previously thought, experts say. Advanced periodontal disease can cause tooth loss. But it may also cause other health problems.
"We now know that periodontal disease as an inflammatory condition that affects the whole body," says Anthony M. Iacopino, DMD, PhD, dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry.
Having periodontal disease increases the inflammatory burden throughout the body, adds Iacopino. Elevated levels of inflammation are linked to a wide range of diseases, such as:
Researchers are still studying the link between gum disease and other inflammatory conditions.
"We don't have the evidence yet to say that periodontitis causes heart disease or diabetes," says Iacopino. "But we do know that when we reduce levels of whole body inflammation, people with heart disease or diabetes tend to have fewer complications. And one of the easiest ways to reduce inflammation is to treat periodontal disease."
Proper dental hygiene can go a long way toward preventing gum disease. Most of us know the basics:
Managing periodontitis is more complex, because the inflammation has already invaded below the gun line.
After treatment, good dental care can help reduce the risk of further inflammation and damage. Your dentist or periodontist may recommend more frequent checkups to monitor gum health.
Following a healthy diet can help you maintain healthy gums. New research has begun to suggest that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the kinds found in fish, fish oil and flaxseed, may also help by reducing inflammation.
"Periodontitis is a condition that needs to be managed carefully," says Low. "But with regular periodontal care, we can keep gums healthy and prevent tooth loss."