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Illustration: Traci Daberko

Eating right and a little daily maintenance nourish a healthy smile that does your whole body good.

Alison Ashton
September 01, 2015

Every time you smile, you reveal much more than your pearly whites and a friendly mood. When periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, PC, examines a patient's mouth, she discovers all kinds of clues to his or her well-being. "We say your mouth is the window to your overall health," says Cram, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. "It can show signs of a lot of different things, from nutritional deficiencies to systemic disease." Pale gums might signal an iron deficiency. Chronic bleeding gums can be a sign of unhealthy blood sugar—and undiagnosed diabetes.

More than half of all adults over the age of 30 have some form of gum disease, and that puts their overall health at risk. "When a periodontal infection gets into the bone around your teeth, it can enter your bloodstream," says Cram. "From there, it travels to other parts of your body and can contribute to medical problems."

"There's a very clear association between poor oral health and heart disease," says Keith Roach, MD, chief medical officer of the health website Sharecare and associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. A new study in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests the culprit is body-wide inflammation caused by oral bacteria. Other studies reveal an association between oral inflammation and Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and rheumatoid arthritis. An expectant mom's own poor oral health may lead to low birth weight and premature birth. There's even evidence linking periodontal disease to human papillomavirus (HPV) and rising rates of head and neck cancers. "That's why you need to be routinely checked for oral cancer, even if you don't have a traditional risk factor, like drinking or smoking," says Roach.

Other medical conditions boost your risk for oral health problems. Obesity may raise your risk for periodontal disease. Fluctuating blood sugar from diabetes encourages gum disease. But these three simple steps can help keep your smile—and the rest of your body—in good shape.

When it comes to oral health care, the basics still apply.

1. Brush twice daily for two minutes each time. Ask your dentist which toothbrush is best for you. Some people, such as kids and elderly folks, may need the boost of an electric model. And change your toothbrush every two to three months. "When the bristles aren't straight anymore, the brush isn't doing the job as well," Cram says. Also, use a fluoride toothpaste with the American Dental Association seal of acceptance to ensure it's safe and effective.

2. Floss once daily. It helps remove plaque from areas between teeth that your toothbrush can't reach. Any type of floss you prefer—waxed, unwaxed, or extra-thick—will do the job.

3. See the dentist twice a year. Anyone who is prone to cavities, has a history of periodontal disease, has a family history of heart disease or stroke, or has diabetes may need to see the dentist more often, says Cram.

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