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Open Wide: New Studies Say Your Mouth Holds Early Indicators of Cancer, Pregnancy


A nice smile may say more about a person than just a pretty face. The Wall Street Journal reports Wednesday that several new studies suggest that some of the earliest signs of diabetes, cancer, pregnancy, immune disorders, hormone imbalances and drug issues show up in your gums, teeth and tongue-- sometimes long before a patient knows anything is wrong.

"'We have lots of data showing a direct correlation between inflammation in the mouth and inflammation in the body,' says Anthony Iacopino, director of the International Centre for Oral-Systemic Health, which opened at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry in Canada in 2008. Recent studies also show that treating gum disease improves circulation, reduces inflammation and can even reduce the need for insulin in people with diabetes.

Such findings are fueling a push for dentists to play a greater role in patients' overall health. Some 20 million Americans—including 6% of children and 9% of adults—saw a dentist but not a doctor in 2008, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health this month."

One dentist told the Journal that in his 32 years of practice he has spotted several cases of cancer, uncontrolled diabetes, bulimia and methamphetamine addiction. The Journal reports on just some of the things a dental exam can reveal that may show signs of broader health problems:

  • Back of upper molars can show where stomach acid has worm away enamel which could indicate bulimia
  • Red, puffy and inflamed gums are common during pregnancy
  • Tiny red hemorrhages on gums that spontaneous bleed may indicate leukemia
  • 'Strawberry' textured tongue with red bumps may point to Kawasaki disease, an inflammation of the vessels

Ed Marcus, a periodontist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University dental schools, says about 50% of periodontal disease is genetic, and the Journal reports that there is growing evidence of a link between periodontal disease and cardiovascular problems.

Recent research from the Dental Health Foundation has found that poor oral hygiene could cause pneumonia,as researchers believe there could be a link between bacteria in the mouth and the lung disease.

Mark Wolff, a chairman of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at NYU College of Dentistry, tells the Journal that shiny white teeth do not necessarily represent a healthy mouth.

Using whitening products more often than recommended can erode some of the enamel and cause teeth to appear translucent, and the Journal reprots that many dentists worry that a white smile often gives people a false sense of complacency as their teeth could still be harboring tooth decay and serious gum disease.

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