Can Tooth Decay Lead to Death?


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A dentist gives free care to an uninsured man at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Many uninsured people go without dental care, but an infected tooth can go from painful to dangerous very quickly. David McNew/Getty Images

The idea that tooth decay can be life threatening may seem absurd at first, but there's evidence to suggest that what goes on inside your mouth may have far-reaching implications for your whole body health. One of the most widely believed connections is that between poor oral health and heart disease. This long acknowledged potential relationship was further cemented by a 2015 study published in the Journal of Periodontology, which found a solid link between less than stellar oral hygiene and hypertension (high blood pressure), itself a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

There are a couple of theories that may explain why there's a link between heart disease and gum disease. In one, oral bacteria get into the bloodstream through sores in bleeding gums and attach themselves to the fatty plaques lining the blood vessels in the heart. Once there, they obstruct blood flow, which can lead to a heart attack. In another theory, arterial inflammation caused by periodontal bacteria restricts blood flow, eventually causing a heart attack. The 2015 Journal of Periodontology study suggests that inflammation and blood pressure elevation could be the connection between periodontitis and potentially heart disease-inducing hypertension.

Although there's no definitive proof yet that poor oral health causes heart disease, it does seem to be a risk factor, lending support to the possibility that the mouth and body connection plays a much larger role in human health and wellness than we've suspected until now, including quality of life issues and longevity. However, research has yet to establish with rock-solid certainty that treatment of periodontal disease will lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Poor oral health has also been associated with other diseases like stroke, dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, respiratory infection, pregnancy problems, kidney disease and even erectile dysfunction! In most scenarios, the thinking is that bacteria from infected teeth gets into a patient's bloodstream and causes harm. If that last disease risk doesn't get men to floss, nothing will!

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Sources

  • Absolute Dental. "10 Health Issues Caused by Bad Oral Health." January 26, 2017 (March 28, 2019) https://www.absolutedental.com/blog/10-health-issues-caused-by-bad-oral-health/
  • Ameet, Mani M., and Tejnani Avneesh H., Pawar Babita R., Marawar Pramod P. "The Relationship Between Periodontitis and Systemic Diseases – Hype or Hope?" Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. April 2013 (March 28, 2019) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3644469/
  • American Heart Association. "Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes." Aug. 30, 2015 (March 28, 2019) https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/why-diabetes-matters/cardiovascular-disease--diabetes?s=q%253Dhypertension%252520and%252520heart%252520disease%2526sort%253Drelevancy
  • Choi, Hye Min, and Kyungdo Han, Yong-Gyu Park, Jun-Beom Park. "Associations Among Oral Hygiene Behavior and Hypertension Prevalence and Control: The 2008 to 2010 Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey." Journal of Periodontology. July 1, 2015 (March 28, 2019) https://aap.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1902/jop.2015.150025
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