Maintaining a healthy mouth isn’t just about keeping your teeth clean; it’s also important to focus on teeth’s support structure, your gums.

In many cases, early signs of gum disease such as bleeding when you brush or floss, are ignored and gum disease progresses to a point where it has a serious impact on your body.

According to Ministry of Health figures, nearly half (49.9%) of New Zealand adults show signs of serious gum (periodontal) disease, where the fibrous connection between the tooth’s root and the supporting gum and bone are lost. Compromised oral health during childhood is a large contributing factor to this statistic, with the symptoms of gum disease often becoming apparent by the time a person reaches their 20’s.

Gum disease starts with your body’s immune response to bacteria, which occur naturally in our mouths, building up to create plaque on our teeth. Regular brushing and flossing can keep plaque at bay, but if it is not removed, it builds up and hardens into tartar. At this stage you will need a dentist or dental hygienist to remove it, before you can effectively remove plaque again.

In simple cases, plaque makes the gums red, swollen and prone to bleeding. This is known as gingivitis. When neglected, gingivitis progresses into periodontitis as the plaque matures below the gum line. At this stage the bones, connective tissues and gums start to recede. This is a natural process where the body tries to remove contamination which results in teeth loosening and eventually falling out.

It is important to visit a dentist and a hygienist regularly to keep your mouth healthy. As gingivitis can lead to periodontitis, it is important to be aware of the signs of unhealthy gums and the indications that the disease is progressing such as:

  • Persistent bad breath
  • Tender or bleeding gums – especially when you brush or floss your teeth
  • Red, swollen gums, or receding gums that give the appearance that your teeth are getting longer
  • Pain when you chew because of loose or sensitive teeth
  • Sensitive teeth due to gum recession exposing root surface

Because periodontitis is a gradual process, it can be halted if caught early enough. A dentist or dental hygienist will be able to examine your gums for signs of the “pockets” around the teeth (caused by the bacteria developing between the teeth and supporting gums) and assess any risk factors that increase the likelihood of gum disease. These risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Some medications
  • Illnesses such as diabetes
  • Genetic predisposition

Unfortunately, it is not only your teeth that are at risk. There is a growing body of evidence that links poor oral health and gum disease with other health issues. Much of the risk is associated with the profusion of inflammatory bacteria in the mouth getting into the individual’s system and affecting other major organs.

Links between gum disease and other health issues include:

Heart disease: Research from 2016 has revealed people with periodontitis are almost twice as likely to have heart disease, adding to existing studies which show that people with unhealthy mouths suffer more heart attacks and have an increased risk of stroke compared to people with good oral health.

Dementia: A 2013 study by the University of Central Lancashire in the UK discovered bacteria linked to gum disease in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, pointing to an increased risk of dementia for people with poor oral hygiene.

Arthritis: People with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have periodontal disease and a 2015 study found “the inflammatory periodontal microenvironment may play a role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis.”

Respiratory disease: Research published in 2011 found that people with periodontal disease run the risk of respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.

Cancer: Researchers found that men with gum disease were 49% more likely to develop kidney cancer, 54% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, and 30% more likely to develop blood cancers. A 2013 review of many studies also showed increased risk of oral cancer.

Because lifelong oral health requires good dental hygiene, gum analysis is part of our comprehensive examination. Dental Artistry also has a qualified dental hygienist to help create tailored oral health and preventative programmes; which start with a review of a patient’s medical history and an assessment of their gum health and include advice about brushing and flossing, appropriate nutrition and recommendations for treatment. With regular visits we can prevent issues before they start, reducing the need for extensive treatments and helping to keep you healthy.