Healthy mouth, healthy body: The link between them may surprise you.

The condition of your mouth is closely tied to your overall health. Find out how oral health is linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more.

Taking care of your teeth isn’t just about having a nice smile and pleasant breath. Recent research has found a number of links between oral health and overall health. While in many cases, the nature of this link still isn’t clear — researchers have yet to conclude whether the connections are causal or correlative — what is certain is that the condition of your mouth is closely tied to your overall physical health.

Oral Health and Diabetes

Doctors have known for years that type 2 diabetics have an increased incidence of periodontitis, or gum disease. In July 2008 the connection was further highlighted: Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health followed 9,296 nondiabetic participants, measuring their level of periodontic bacteria over the course of 20 years. “We found that people who had higher levels of periodontal disease had a twofold risk of developing type 2 diabetes over that time period compared to people with low levels or no gum disease,” explains Ryan Demmer, PhD, associate researcher at the department of epidemiology at the Mailman School and the lead author. While more research is needed before doctors can conclude that gum disease actually leads to diabetes, there are already a few theories about why this might be the case: One proposes that when infections in your mouth get bad enough, they can lead to low-grade inflammation throughout your body, which in turn wreaks havoc on your sugar-processing abilities. “There are all kinds of inflammatory molecules,” says Dr. Demmer, “and it’s believed that maybe some attach to insulin receptors and prevent the body’s cells from using the insulin to get glucose into the cell.”

Oral Health and Heart Disease

As with diabetes, the connection between poor oral health and cardiovascular conditions has been recognized — the two are often found together — but it still hasn’t been determined conclusively whether or not there is a direct causal relationship between them.

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