For centuries the mouth and body have been disconnected — at least when it comes to health care. Through the Middle Ages and beyond, teeth fell under the care of barbers, who could shave a customer and pull a molar with equal skill. In the 1700s, French surgeon Pierre Fauchard published the Treatise on Teeth, establishing dentistry as its own science.
Across the channel in England, as physicians gained stature in the 19th century, surgeons and dentists engaged in a power struggle. In the modern United States, after medicine became linked to employer insurance and Medicare, the fissure between medicine and dentistry widened. Insurance coverage began at the throat.
So when Salomon Amar, a periodontal specialist at Boston University, began exploring links between oral bacteria and heart disease in animal studies in the late 1990s, reactions were lukewarm. “Many cardiologists thought we were a bit crazy,” he says. Skepticism still abounds, but the same molecular tools that have dramatically changed understanding of the gut microbiome are now allowing scientists to track and examine bacteria in the mouth. Advocates of a connection between the artery disease atherosclerosis and microbes are hoping to find convincing proof of their suspicions, while exploring links between ailing gums and other conditions, including cancer, arthritis, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.
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