Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Abby Strong
Taking care of our teeth and gums isn’t something we think about on a regular basis. We might brush our teeth every day (and, hopefully, floss), but we often do not consider the benefits of proper oral hygiene.
If you’ve ever been to the dentist, your doctor or hygienist has probably warned you about plaque. Plaque is a thin, sticky biofilm that forms on teeth when bacteria feed off of food residue left in the oral cavity. It is primarily composed of anaerobic microorganisms such as Streptococcus mutans, which ferment sucrose into corrosive lactic acid. In addition to its immediate effects on tooth enamel, plaque may harden into tartar, a porous, yellow-brown bacterial “shield.” Tartar buildup leads to serious demineralization, or breaking down of the tooth, and tooth decay (cavities). Toothpaste functions to counter plaque and tartar through a combination of fluoride, abrasives, detergents, and antibacterial agents.
The majority of widespread oral health conditions in the U.S. can be traced back to poor dental hygiene. Among them are minor periodontal diseases (i.e. gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums), tooth decay, and more seriously, oropharyngeal cancers. According to the National Institute of Health and the American Dental Association, 59% of adolescents have dental decay, and the average adult between age 20 and 64 is missing three teeth.
Though gum diseases and tooth decay are serious conditions, even graver are the connections between dental health and the rest of the body. Studies have shown that those with poor oral hygiene are at higher risk of cardiovascular issues such as heart disease, endocarditis, and stroke. According to Harvard Medical School, there are numerous theories to explain this, among them being the relationship between bacteria and blood clots and that the fact that gum infections may induce vascular damage. Interestingly, dental health has also been linked to maternal difficulties. Research has suggested that mothers with peritonitis are much more likely to give birth to a premature or underweight baby. In any severity, it’s clear that neglecting oral health and hygiene is more dangerous than a simple cavity.
Beyond physical well-being, taking good care of oral hygiene has several subsidiary connotations. From a sociological perspective, oral health is a largely unexplored vein of social and societal justice. Specifically, dental treatment provides an interesting window into United States inequality trends. In the 21st century, U.S. citizens who are reliant on services such as Medicaid for healthcare are often denied access to dental health consultations and regular teeth cleaning. This trend of poor oral hygiene in dependent Americans not only increases the risk of other health conditions but also makes it difficult for low-income workers to find jobs. According to the New York Times, about a third of people with incomes eligible for Medicaid stated that the condition of their mouth impacted their job interview. Sadly, studies have shown that children of color in the U.S. suffer from the highest rates of teeth caries and untreated decay. These findings display the stark, disturbing inequality in access to dental care — an injustice that remains prominent in the U.S. today.
Altogether, taking care of our teeth and gums is invaluable. Many of us may have experienced a painful infection or cavity, but we may not fully understand how oral health impacts our extended body and personal livelihood. When in doubt, always brush your teeth — your body and dentist will thank you for it.