Healthy Teeth, Healthy Body

Health, Home & Family
on March 9, 2008

Karen Wright received a wake-up call from her dentist when she went in for a routine cleaning during the first trimester of her pregnancy. Wright, 44, an operations director at a radio station in Mankato, Minn. (pop. 32,427), was told that she needed to have a cracked filling fixed immediately or she would put her health and the health of her unborn child at risk.

This was news to Wright. I was so nauseous from being pregnant that the last thing I wanted to do was have dental work, she recalls, but my obstetrician said it couldnt wait, so I scheduled it right away.

Many people dont realize how important oral health is to their overall health. Consequently, they dont take dental care as seriously as they should, says Susan Karabin, president of the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) and a periodontist in New York City.

In Wrights case, the cracked filling would have been a breeding ground for bacteria, which could have caused a gum infection and possibly resulted in premature labor. Studies have shown that pregnant women who develop gum disease are at an increased risk for delivering a preterm or low birth weight baby, Karabin notes. Studies also have suggested a link between gum disease and heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other health problems.

About 80 percent of American adults have some form of gum disease, such as gingivitis or periodontitis, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The most obvious symptoms of advanced gum disease are sore, swollen or bleeding gums; painful, sensitive or loose teeth; and bad breath.

The mouth-body connection
Researchers are studying the relationship between oral health and overall health. One theory is that when people have periodontal disease, the bacteria in their mouths enter the bloodstream, which can cause problems elsewhere in the body.

If you dont brush and floss well enough, plaquea sticky film of bacteriawill accumulate around the tooth, says Dr. Martha Cortes, a New York City dentist. Eventually, the plaque goes directly into the bloodstream and accumulates along the blood vessels, causing inflammation, which can make people more vulnerable to heart attacks and stroke.

In fact, researchers have found that people with periodontitis are almost twice as likely to suffer from heart disease as those who have healthy gums. With the number of people with heart disease continuing to increase, it is important to understand that keeping your mouth healthy might also keep your heart healthy, Karabin says.

Brushing and flossing
The good news is that the consequences of poor oral health are preventable through proper brushing and flossing, and regular visits to the dentist. When brushing, use a soft nylon brush positioned at a 45-degree angle toward the gum line and gently brush back and fourth at that angle, Karabin advises. Do this at least twice a day. Flossing also is vital for healthy teeth and gums. The purpose of flossing is not only to remove errant food particles between teeth, but also to remove plaque. The best way to floss is to wind about 18 inches of floss around the middle fingers of each hand. Pinch the floss between your thumbs and index fingers. Leave a 1- to 2-inch length in between and use your thumbs to move the floss between your teeth.

Rub it up and down the side of the tooth a couple of times and get slightly up under the gum with your floss, explains Karabin, who suggests flossing at least once a day.

Its also important to have your teeth cleaned at least twice year by your dentist or dental hygienist. You should take the advice of your dentist as to whether you need to see a periodontist or need to come more often for scaling and root cleaning, Karabin says. Scaling and root cleaning are more invasive procedures that remove plaque and tartar from below the gum line. Good oral hygiene can mean more than a brighter smile; it can mean better health. Just ask Wright, who now has a healthy baby boy, and a healthy smile. I am much better about everything now, especially flossing, she says.

Choosing a Dentist

Seeing a dentist regularly is one of the most important things you can do to protect your teeth, gums and overall health.

Good oral care, including regular cleanings, is important, says Dr. Saul M. Pressner, a dentist in New York City. Finding a dentist that you can trust may take some effort on your part, but is well worth it.

Here are some tips for choosing a dentist:

Ask around
The best way to find a dentist is through word of mouth, so ask friends, family members or co-workers about the dentist they use and if they are happy with him or her. If youre moving to a new town, ask your dentist for a referral, consult your insurance provider or find a dentist at, the website of the American Dental Association.

Check credentials
Make sure the dentist is a member of either the American Dental Association or the Academy of General Dentistry. These professional organizations require that members attend continuing education courses to stay current on information and techniques. A dentist may have either a DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine) degree. The degrees are equivalent.

Make an appointment to get acquainted with the dentist you are considering. When you visit the office, look around to make sure it is clean and tidy, Pressner says. Ask if the dentist is reachable for after-hour emergencies. There should be a system in place if you should have a dental emergency over the weekend or during the holidays.

Its also important that you generally like your dentist. You should have a good rapport with the dentist that you choose, Pressner says.