Chew your way to good health

Eat an apple a day for your dental health

Did you know that your teeth can easily undermine ALL your other efforts to be healthy? Good dental health is critical at all stages of your life and will promote healthy ageing and well-being.

There are several reasons for having great dental health but this could be the most important! Because your teeth are the only ‘non-shedding’ surfaces of your body, bacterial levels can reach more than 1011 (i.e. 100 billion) microorganisms per mg of dental plaque. Can you even start to imagine just how many bacteria and other microorganisms that is?

Rod-shaped bacteria – just one of the many types you might have in your mouth

Rates of tooth decay vary between countries and races but as an estimate, in the USA the rate of periodontitis is 47% in 30-year old’s and 70% in 65-year old’s! As you get older, you need to visit the dentist every six months for a thorough cleaning.

As well as causing tooth loss, decay and some painful hours in the dentist’s chair, infections originating in the gums can cause or at make many other illnesses worse. These low-grade infections also put a load on our immune system, which then enhances the rate at which we age.

The bacteria in your mouth don’t usually enter your bloodstream unless the gum tissue becomes broken. This of course can happen if your gums start to bleed and you can be at risk soon after having a dental procedure, especially an extraction of a bad tooth. One study of 735 children undergoing dental treatment for extensive tooth decay found that nine per cent of them had detectable infection in the bloodstream prior to the dental treatment.

It’s been known for a long time that some dental procedures and oral infection itself can cause an infection of the heart valves called bacterial endocarditis. This is a rare disease in people with normal hearts but people with some pre-existing heart defects are at risk if bacterial infection occurs. Unfortunately, the connection between the oral cavity and endocarditis was originally missed because sometimes the oral infections occur months or even years before the endocarditis is obvious.

But oral infection is also extremely likely to be a causal factor for some but not all affected people for the following serious illnesses:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Stroke
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Premature labor and pregnancies that result in low birth weight babies. Since dental health is compromised by the raised hormones in pregnancy, attention to dental health during pregnancy is important.
Have teeth like a tiger

How to (mechanically) minimize oral infection and gum disease

As we grow older our gums recede because the number of cells that can divide is reduced. So, whilst excellent oral hygiene is important at all ages, it is imperative as we age. Daily tooth flossing or some other type of interdental cleaning is advisable as well as very thorough tooth cleaning AT LEAST TWO or more times EVERY day. For people who are unable to floss, mouth washes can help a great deal, but long-term use of mouth washes might have some negative effects and mechanical techniques are probably safer.

Daily flossing and twice a day thorough cleaning (or more if you like) will help retain the health of your gums and thus reduce the need for the gum cells to divide. This will in turn help you retain your teeth as well as enhancing your overall health.

Evidence that there is a massive benefit of having healthy gums as you age comes from many studies such as the following one conducted in California. In this study (results published in 2011) the investigators examined the relationship between dental health and death (by any cause) in 5611 older Californian adults, over a period of about nine years. Those who never brushed their teeth at night had a 20-35% increased risk of death compared to those who brushed every day. Never flossing increased the risk of death by 30% compared with flossing every day.

Not visiting a dentist at least every 12 months increased the risk of death by 30-50% and mortality was also higher in people who had less than 20 teeth!

Regular dental check-ups every six months are important.

The importance of keeping and using your teeth

Apart from avoiding the pain of tooth ache and avoiding the often, lethal infections that originate in the mouth, retaining and using your teeth has other huge benefits. These are driven by the acts of biting and chewing, which are of course the purpose of teeth.

  • During chewing the salivary glands secrete saliva that is mostly water. However, saliva not only enhances digestion, but it also acts as a solvent for substances that confer taste. So, without saliva, foods not only can’t be digested properly but they also don’t have appropriate taste. Saliva also initiates swallowing.
  • The act of chewing itself has a very important effect on the brain. When we chew, we activate many different regions of the brain so just receiving nutrition – through (say) liquid meals – will result in reduced brain function.
  • There is far more to chewing than just the nutrition that usually results. Recent research has shown that the loss of the ability to chew, acts as a source of chronic stress and can exacerbate Cognitive impairment, Cardiovascular disorders and even Osteoporosis

So older people with low numbers of teeth should be fitted with dentures as this not only greatly improves chewing and hence nutrition but has also been shown to increase prefrontal brain activity.

Even chewing non-sugar gum is good for your brain. Mastication can improve working memory and alertness as well as considerably reduce depression and anxiety!

Published by Dr Judy

I am a PhD Geneticist and have spent many decades working in research related to reproduction and cancer. Both are affected by lifestyle, especially ageing and so I am passionate about teaching people how to change their lifestyles to optimise their health.

One thought on “Chew your way to good health

  1. Dear Dr Judy,
    Great to read your comments about Dental Health. So important to general well-being. Why is Dental Care not included in Medicare? Teeth are part of the human body, do we should be able to have them looked after in the same way as any other body part. If only this could be the case.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.