Good dental care and oral health habits may do more than protect your teeth and gums, according to Dr. Jonathan Richter, a Great Neck dentist who specializes in periodontics. Researchers and dentists are finding increasing evidence that gum disease may be a sign of other health problems... or even cause them. Known as periodontal disease, gum disease ranges from mild to severe and is more prevalent than the common cold, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans.
If it weren't for a trip to the dentist, Leslie Levor says she might still be walking around with diabetes - and not know it. The Manhasset resident made an appointment with Dr. Richter for her usual dental check-up. Since she was previously diagnosed with gum disease, Mrs. Levor practiced good oral hygiene, with daily flossing and regular dental visits to have her teeth checked and cleaned. But when the dental hygienist noticed a new problem with her gums despite her good habits, Dr. Richter recommended Mrs. Levor be checked for diabetes. Within two weeks, after a visit to her doctor and a blood test, the diagnosis was confirmed.
"I'm very thankful to Dr. Richter, and to Lauren Kilmeade, the dental hygienist, for helping me discover I had a disease that surely would have gotten worse if I hadn't dealt with it in a timely manner," said Mrs. Levor. Since her diagnosis, she has lost 25 pounds, is eating a healthy diet, and has been able to cut back on her diabetes medication. Her gum disease is also under control.
Mrs. Levor is one of the lucky ones whose early diagnosis and lifestyle changes may have saved her from the serious health consequences of diabetes. Almost one-third of Americans who have the disease are unaware of it. Of the 18.2 million Americans with diabetes, an estimated 5.2 million don't know it, according to the American Diabetes Association.
"Studies have shown an association between gum disease and a number of serious health problems - not only diabetes, but also heart disease and stroke," Dr. Richter says. Periodontitis is an infection that releases bacteria into the bloodstream, and it can set off a cascade of events that wreak havoc on other organ systems. Chronic gum infection has been linked to the development of clogged arteries and blood clots, putting people at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. Studies have shown that severe gum disease can also make diabetes worse, and people with diabetes need to be especially vigilant about maintaining good oral hygiene and seeing their dentist regularly."
The most obvious affect of periodontal disease is tooth loss. The infection occurs when dental plaque, a sticky, sometimes colorless film, accumulates on the surfaces of teeth. People can lose their teeth when severe infection kicks in, attacking and destroying the gums and bone that hold teeth in place. In people with healthy teeth, bone and gum tissue fit snugly around the teeth. When someone has periodontal disease, the supporting tissue and bone break down, forming "pockets" around the teeth. Over time, these pockets become deeper, allowing plaque to accumulate and bacteria to spread.
"These days, it's almost tragic to see people lose their teeth and develop other health problems, because gum disease is both preventable and treatable," Dr. Richter says. But because periodontal disease is usually painless and progresses slowly, it can go undetected for years. At its earliest stage, it can be eliminated by dental cleanings, along with daily flossing and brushing. But once it progresses, more extensive treatment is required.
Everyone should monitor their teeth and gums for periodontal disease, Dr. Richter says. Warning signs include red, swollen and tender gums; a bad taste in the mouth; bad breath; gums that have pulled away from teeth or bleed when you brush; loose or sensitive teeth; pain when chewing; and a change in the way teeth fit together when you bite.
Anyone who would like a free brochure with more information on preventing periodontal disease or on diabetes and oral health is invited to call Dr. Richter's office: 516-282-0310.
Dr. Jonathan Richter is a practicing dentist in Great Neck, with additional specialty training and certificates in both periodontics and prosthodontics. He belongs to a number of professional organizations, including the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Periodontology, the Northeastern Academy of Periodontology and the American Academy of General Dentistry. His phone number is 516-282-0310.