When you look in your mouth you may see teeth that need whitening, but a dentist may see signs of heart disease. A study published in the Journal of Dental Research found that many dental problems can be signs of serious health complications. University of Washington School of Dentistry professor Philippe P. Hujoel, DDS, PhD, says the sugar and carbohydrates in food, known as "fermentable carbohydrates," are to blame. Found in sugary drinks, snack foods like potato chips, and simple grains like white bread and corn, these carbs are fermented by bacteria in your mouth, which produces the acids that cause tooth decay. "Those dental diseases are a marker for an unhealthy diet, and an unhealthy diet may predict future health complications," Dr. Hujoel notes.
#1: Obesity "If a kid has tooth decay and cavities, he probably has high exposure to fermentable carbs," Dr. Hujoel says. "He's really having too many snacks and candy, and this may very well be the kid that ends up obese." For adults, too, an increase in cavities could mean you're eating too many unhealthy foods, which also puts you at risk for obesity. A dentist who knows your medical history may ask about your eating habits, but you should feel free to ask if what's happening to your teeth might be a sign of other problems.
#2: Cardiovascular disease The same carbs in snack foods and sugary drinks that get dentists drilling are often found in the company of unhealthy ingredients like trans fatty acids. While trans fats themselves don't cause cavities, they're often used in foods with high amounts of cavity-causing fermentable carbs, and they have been associated with an increase in cardiovascular disease. Whenever you can, replace processed, packaged food with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. For those sweet treats you can't give up, check the labels to make sure they're trans fat free.
It's also possible for cavities themselves to threaten your heart, if the bacteria that produce them find their way into your cardiovascular system. Bacteria associated with tooth and gum disease may also be involved in stroke, diabetes, and respiratory problems—so brush and floss every day.
#3: Diabetes The fermentable carbohydrates in sugary drinks and snacks loaded with carbs increase your blood sugar level drastically, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes, Dr. Hujoel says. Which is one more reason to switch to a diet that produces fewer cavities. "Lifelong usage of high fermentable carbohydrates first leads to dental disease, and then, long-term, leads to other health outcomes," Dr. Hujoel adds.
#4: Cancer Not only does a tooth-unhealthy diet put you at risk for obesity, which is a risk factor for certain cancers, harmful lifestyle habits like smoking can produce tooth discoloration and periodontal destruction. Abnormalities in your mouth, including bleeding gums and cavities, should be a natural alarm bell, Dr. Hujoel says. So always ask your dentist if your tooth problems could point toward a wider problem.
#5: Alzheimer's disease In a study just published in The Journal of the American Dental Association, people who lost most of their teeth were more likely to develop dementia problems, such as Alzheimer's disease, later on. It will take more research to clarify what the connection between tooth loss and brain health may be. But is seems that keeping your teeth as healthy possible has benefits that go far beyond your mouth.