… and it has nothing to do with diet or exercise.
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Credit: Getty Images / Peter Dazeley

A different kind of plaque buildup might be responsible for not only heart disease cases, but also depression, anxiety and more.

A history of gum disease increases risk for heart conditions, autoimmune diseases and a diagnosable mental illness, according to a study performed in the United Kingdom and published in the November 2021 issue of the journal BMJ Open.

"Poor oral health is extremely common," co-author Joht Singh Chandan, Ph.D., of the University of Birmingham's Institute of Applied Health Research, tells the University of Birmingham News. (That includes in the U.S.: A whopping 47% of Americans 30 and older have gum disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.) "When oral ill-health progresses, it can lead to a substantially reduced quality of life. However, until now, not much has been known about the association of poor oral health and many chronic diseases, particularly mental health."

We do know plenty, however, about how poor oral health can relate to heart disease and the plaque buildup in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

"An inflammatory response in the gums can lead to an inflammatory response in the rest of the body," Brian Kantor, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist at Lowenberg, Lituchy & Kantor in New York City, told us for a story about the #1 Tool to Improve Gum and Heart Health, According to Dentists. "So, having a healthy mouth and healthy gums can lead to overall health."

Over time, the chronic inflammation that's triggered by swollen gum tissue puts our bodies at increased risk for an array of other health problems, according to Harvard Medical School researchers. (ICYMI, here's the difference between acute and chronic Inflammation—plus what's healthy and what's harmful.)

As a result of the pervasiveness of periodontal (aka gum) disease and the lack of a large amount of evidence about how it impacts all of the body and the brain, the research team conducted one of the largest epidemiological studies ever. To do so, they tapped into data from more than 64,000 U.K. patients who had a general-practitioner-reported case of gum disease, including two of the most common forms, gingivitis (which 60,995 had) and periodontitis (diagnosed in 3,384 of the individuals).

The researchers compared the chronic disease rates and mental health diagnoses of this group with another collection of data from 251,161 patients who had no record of periodontal disease. Body Mass Index (BMI), ethnicity and average age were comparable between the groups.

The scientists crunched the numbers to determine how many people with and without gum disease later developed one of the following conditions over the course of the next three years:

  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart failure, stroke, vascular dementia
  • Cardiometabolic disorders, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • Autoimmune conditions, including arthritis, type 1 diabetes and psoriasis
  • A mental health challenge, such as depression, anxiety or another serious mental illness

Compared to their healthy-mouthed peers, patients with gum disease at the start of the study were this much more likely to be diagnosed with one of these other conditions:

  • Mental health challenge: 37%
  • Autoimmune condition: 33%
  • Cardiovascular disease: 18%
  • Cardiometabolic disorders: 7% (although for type 2 diabetes, this rate jumps to 26%)

In addition to proving, once again, how interconnected our body's systems are, these findings highlight the importance of regular dental checkups and "taking a holistic approach when treating people," explains Caroline Aylott, head of research delivery at Versus Arthritis in the U.K.

"An important implication of our findings is the need for effective communication between dental and other health care professionals to ensure patients obtain an effective treatment plan targeting both oral and wider health to improve their existing overall health and reduce the risk of future illness," Krish Nirantharakumar, M.D., co-senior author, theme lead for health informatics and professor in health data science and public health at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Applied Health Research, adds to the University of Birmingham News.

One more important implication? For all of us to double down on our oral health habits. Discover the best foods to eat for healthy teeth and gums, then don't miss this dental hygienist's viral TikTok about when you should actually be brushing your teeth.