Poor oral health has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. But by changing certain habits, you can improve the health of your mouth and teeth and lessen your risk.

How well you care for your teeth and gums has a powerful effect on your overall health. Neglecting your oral health lead to more than just sore teeth and bad breath — it can open the door to all sorts of health problems, including some pretty nasty diseases like oral cancer. Researchers have found possible connections between gum problems and heart disease, bacterial pneumonia, stroke, and even problem pregnancies.

“You cannot be healthy with an unhealthy mouth any more than one can be healthy with an infected foot,” says Richard H. Price, DMD, spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA) and a former clinical instructor at the Boston University Dental School.

The Role of Diet and Lifestyle in Oral Health

A number of dietary habits and lifestyle factors can affect oral health, including:

Sugar consumption. “Having a sugar-laden diet will contribute to tooth decay and gum problems, as the bacteria in the mouth thrive in this environment,” producing tooth and gum-destroying enzymes and acids, says Dr. Price, who retired after 35 years as a dentist in Newton, Mass.

  • Smoking. Dental care experts have long known that smoking cigarettes and cigars and using tobacco products can cause periodontal disease (gum disease), tooth decay, and oral cancer. Cigars can also cause periodontal disease and throat, or pharyngeal, cancer. “The smoke from tobacco has a toxic effect on gum tissue, and can interfere with blood flow,” Price explains. “Smoking also stains the heck out of teeth, is a direct cause of oral cancer, and can contribute to bad breath.”
  • Drinking alcohol. “Drinking can contribute to oral problems indirectly by resulting in a dehydrated mouth, which can allow bacteria to run rampant,” Price says. In addition, people who have alcohol addiction issues are probably less likely to consistently follow good dental care habits, he says.

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