Oral and maxillofacial surgeon Sean Bradley.

When you brush and floss your teeth and visit your dentist regularly, you’re not just maintaining your oral health. You’re also safeguarding your overall health. In recent years, scientists have discovered that severe, chronic gum inflammation resulting from inadequate oral hygiene boosts the odds of developing serious—even life-threatening—health problems.

Dr. Sean Bradley, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, explains how oral health affects the body:

What are the health risks associated with not brushing or flossing thoroughly? Plaque, a film that contains bacteria, builds up between the gums and teeth. This can cause the gums to become inflamed. If early inflammation, called gingivitis, is untreated, it can progress to periodontitis, in which gum tissue and the bones that support the teeth break down.

What’s more, inflammation may contribute to the following: heart disease, stroke, endocarditis (a heart-valve infection), low birth weight in babies born to pregnant women, diabetes (gum inflammation weakens the body’s ability to control blood sugar, leaving you more vulnerable to infection), Alzheimer’s disease, cancer (research shows that people with gum disease are at higher risk for kidney, pancreatic and blood cancers) and respiratory infections (bacteria in the mouth can be inhaled, which can lead to pneumonia).

What’s the link between gum disease and heart disease? Research now points to gum disease as an important risk factor for heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart attacks. Up to 91 percent of people with heart disease have periodontitis, compared to 66 percent of those who don’t have the condition. Bacteria from teeth and gums enter the bloodstream, producing toxins that injure the lining of blood vessels and cause inflammation.

This contributes to atherosclerosis, or a build-up of plaque (fatty deposits composed of cholesterol and other substances) on the walls of coronary arteries.

How can you tell if your gums aren’t healthy? One sign of trouble is bleeding when you brush or floss, but your dentist can more thoroughly evaluate the health of your gums. Be sure to see your dentist for a check-up every six months.

What’s the best way to avoid inflamed gums? Brush your teeth at least twice each day after meals for two minutes, and floss daily.

Sean Bradley, DMD, is a specialist on the RWJUH Hamilton Medical Advisory Panel (MAP). Learn more at rwjbh.org/hamiltonmap.