Periodontitis, a gum condition related to plaque, is one of the world’s most prevalent health conditions – although lower income groups suffer the most. It affects the whole body, and also carries significant social and economic costs for both individuals and society. Preventable and treatable through community-level interventions, periodontitis is a public health challenge and a health inequalities issue. Representatives from the Egas Moniz Higher Education Cooperative and associated institutions explain the condition and its health impacts.
by José João Mendes, João Botelho, Vanessa Machado, Björn Klinge, Antonio Pedro Alves de Matos and Gil Alcoforado
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Periodontitis and its effects
Periodontitis is a gum condition characterised by a chronic inflammatory reaction, driven by dental plaque1. This oral disease has harmful systemic effects, as it is linked to the circulation of inflammatory and toxic products 2. Clinically, patients suffering from periodontitis suffer from symptoms gum bleeding, tooth movement and, ultimately, tooth loss 3,4. Periodontitis is one of the most prevalent conditions worldwide – The WHO estimates that 40% of adults aged 65- 74 suffer from it. It has severe economic and social consequences 5–7 ;In 2018, periodontitis cost an estimated €158B in economic loss in Europe 8.
Periodontitis and Public Health
The problem is more prevalent and severer in low-income and middle-income countries9, but even in rich and developed countries the prevalence is worrisome 6. Tackling Periodontitis is therefore a public health concern and worldwide health priority.
If untreated, periodontitis can be responsible for enduring impaired quality of life, impaired systemic health, and work productivity loss. It is not surprising that developing countries, with greater financial restrictions, show continuing deterioration of their periodontal conditions as well as other health-related issues.
The management of periodontitis is cost-effective, and community level measures can reduce the burden of disease. We must prioritise prevention, diagnosis, and management, and particularly focus on raising awareness. We need a better integration of dental healthcare within the assorted relevant health systems. Efficient societal public-health campaigns should be reinforced by messages directed at individual patients. Lastly, people need more affordable dental and periodontal care, especially those in low-income countries.
Ultimately, the unstopped progression of periodontitis, as well as increases in life expectancy, will lead to a higher number of patients without teeth. While the majority cannot afford implant treatments, the ones who can often maintain bad oral health habits. This will increase the risk of infection around implants – peri-implantitis – very similar to what happens in periodontitis. Placing implants in patients who have lost their teeth due to periodontitis risks creating a second wave of a disease which is still poorly understood, and where therapeutic approaches are not yet fully developed.
The effects of periodontitis on the body
Peri-implantitis and periodontitis are localised in the mouth. However, many studies identify relationships with systemic illnesses. Some of these relationships are bidirectional – that means that periodontitis impacts the clinical markers of a particular condition as well as vice-versa. Periodontitis has been implicated in diabetes mellitus 10,11, obesity and metabolic syndrome 12, cardiovascular diseases 13,14, cancer 15, rheumatoid arthritis 16, adverse pregnancy outcomes 17, polycystic ovary syndrome 18, and bacterial vaginosis 19. More recently, it has been linked to an increased risk of complications from COVID-19 20. Bearing in mind these close links between periodontitis and systemic diseases, the situation is likely to get worse in low-income populations.
Prevention, health literacy, and ways forward
Despite increasing scientific robustness of Periodontal Medicine, periodontitis is not a disease with a drug-based treatment. It is dependent on preventive behaviour including the actions of the patient, and the physical interventions by the dentist. This fact may help to explain its difficult management in terms of public health and high prevalence. Also, we should be concerned about the neglect of oral health and dental illiteracy; the strategy to combat periodontal diseases should integrate these issues.
Lack of support from public health services to dental medicine has prompted initiatives from civil society, for example the NGO ‘mundo a sorrir’ (Smiling world). Institutions are helping too, for example Egas Moniz has a large, long standing dental clinic which provides reduced cost dental care under public and private health systems. It has built up a large patient database over the years. Further, it’s regional study on periodontal health formed the basis for a successful, free of charge, still ongoing, treatment and follow up programme of the patients identified by the study.
Very recently, the World Health Organization outlined a global strategy on tackling oral diseases, including periodontitis 21. Along with this important programme, research must focus more on the underlying mechanisms through which periodontitis impacts systemic conditions. This would give us a knowledge base which could facilitate the development of new approaches to the disease. We need forward-looking, long-term and multi-centric studies to establish the prospective impact of patients’ suffering and the final outcomes of the treatment of this condition. Also, we need more studies regarding genomics, epigenetics, and microbiomics, among others, to better understand this disease and how to control it. The mission of Egas Moniz at the core of a wider European effort in alignment of the new EuroHealthNet 5-year plan to reduce health inequalities, includes working towards the solution of these challenges.
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- Hajishengallis, G. & Chavakis, T. Local and systemic mechanisms linking periodontal disease and inflammatory comorbidities. Nat. Rev. Immunol. (2021) doi:10.1038/s41577-020-00488-6.
- Carvalho, R. et al. Predictors of tooth loss during long-term periodontal maintenance: An updated systematic review. J. Clin. Periodontol. (2021) doi:10.1111/jcpe.13488.
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- WHO includes three dental preparations in list of essential medicines for first time. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2021/october/who-includes-three-dental-preparations-in-list-of-essential-medicines-for-first-time.