Oral-Systemic Connection

Dentists: The New Disease Detectives

The eyes are the windows to the soul, but the mouth is the window to overall health

Ironically, oral healthcare is considered separate from the rest of the healthcare system. But, new research has revealed an important connection: oral health can impact overall systemic health. Dentists are now taking on a new role in healthcare, becoming the lead investigators in preventive cardiology, diabetic care, and inflammatory disease.


The mouth is the port of entry for most of the pathogenic bacteria that affect our health, making it a hotspot for potential infections and diseases. Without proper oral hygiene, the body’s natural defenses cannot combat the high levels of bacteria that cause oral infections, such as dental caries and gingivitis. Bacteria also cause oral inflammation associated with periodontitis—the most common inflammatory disease in humans and affecting 85% of the US adult population. Inflammatory diseases that can be triggered by oral inflammation include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, pneumonia, preterm and low-weight births, and various cancers.

The larger medical community is now addressing this issue. Dr. Marc Penn, MD, PhD, former director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Cleveland Clinic, considers periodontal disease as “an important source of inflammation in reference to cardiovascular disease.” Dr. Bradley Bale, MD, mirrors this view, stating, “One of the reasons heart attacks are not being prevented is because healthcare providers are not recognizing the link between cardiovascular disease and oral-systemic health.”

Here are a few statistics that suggest a strong correlation between oral and systemic health:

  • Even as few as two professional cleanings per year can reduce the risk of heart attack by 25% (American Heart Association)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea affects 20 million people and increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, but effective treatment of sleep apnea can add ten years to a person’s lifespan
  • Appropriate periodontal treatment has been shown to be as effective in lowering the A1C levels in diabetic patients as most medications, but without the adverse side effects
  • Reduction in oral inflammation in diabetic patients can reduce their yearly overall healthcare costs by up to 25%


Tray Setup

With evidence supporting the link between oral and systemic health, dentists are able to customize care with different combinations of treatments. By treating patients according to their overall health risk factors, a visit to the dentist becomes more than just an oral checkup, but a total wellness exam. This new approach may include a traditional dental exam plus expanded diagnostic testing, such as a microbial assessment, genetic testing, salivary diagnostics and health risk assessment. Many of these tests are available to dental professionals as an added level of prevention.

The future of dentistry involves total alignment with the broader healthcare system. The medical and dental communities are now starting to view oral health as a key player in overall health, but the next step will involve collaboration between dentists and physicians to create personalized medical plans. Dentistry has always been one of the few medical sects specializing in prevention. The best way to avoid disease is to prevent it from happening in the first place, and it all starts with the mouth.