Study Links Obesity With Gum Disease

A Harvard School of Public Health study recently showed that obesity leads to a significantly greater risk of periodontal disease—a severe form of gum disease that causes bone destruction and periodontal tissue inflammation.

“This is one of the first, if not the first, study demonstrating such a significant relationship in such a large group of people,” said Frank B. Hu, professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at HSPH.

The association found in this study can be of “substantial public health importance,” said Hu, who was a co-author of the paper.

Monik C. Jimenez—a fifth year doctoral student at HSPH and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine who was the study’s principal researcher—said that she hopes the knowledge of this link will lead dentists to play a more active role in educating their patients about their overall health.

“I think dentists...have an obligation and a duty to connect with their patients,” said Jimenez. “The mouth is not a separate organism from the rest of the body.”

Athanasios I. Zavras, an associate professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology at HSPH and HSDM with international public health policy experience in the World Health Organization, also underscored the importance of the study’s potential impact on the role of dentists.

Since periodontal disease is one of the most common dental diseases and since obesity has become a global epidemic, “if we can understand the mechanism linking the two, we can potentially affect the prevention of periodontal disease and management,” Zavras said.

“This is a great starting point,” he added.

The study’s researchers said they believe that the link is fostered by adipokines, or inflammatory chemicals secreted by fatty tissue.

Increased adiposity, measured by higher waist-to-hip ratio, leads to increased production of cytokines, which are thought to promote periodontal disease, according to Hu.

Hu said he hopes that results of this study will eventually help scientists better understand the biological mechanisms that cause gum disease.

Data used in Jimenez’s analysis was collected as part of the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, an HSPH longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Health, which has been following over 51,000 male health professionals since 1986.

In a similar study, Jimenez also found a strong correlation between obesity and increasing risk of periodontal disease in the elderly population.

Jimenez presented her findings at the 87th General Session of the International Association for Dental Research held in the Miami Beach Convention Center.

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at hxyang@fas.harvard.edu