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Gum Disease May Be Linked to Early Births

Women with gum problems 7 times more likely to deliver prematurely

SATURDAY, Aug. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The advice that you care for your teeth and gums as if they were your babies may not be so far-fetched after all.

Women who have chronic gum disease in their second term of pregnancy are up to seven times more likely to give birth prematurely than those with healthy gums, contends a new study.

And women with the highest odds for gum disease delivered the earliest, at 32 weeks of gestation, says the study, published in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Researchers tracked the dental, medical and behavioral practices and histories of 1,313 women who were in their 21st to 24th weeks of pregnancy.

After adjusting for smoking, race and age, those with general gum disease -- which includes such things as periodontitis or gingivitis -- were four to seven times more likely to deliver prematurely, or before 37 weeks of gestation, than mothers with healthy gums, the study says.

Dr. Marjorie Jeffcoat, chairwoman of the periodontics department at the University of Alabama School of Dentistry and author of the study, says the connection between gum disease and premature births is still a mystery.

"There are lots of theories as to the link, and we are in the process of evaluating some of those," Jeffcoat says.

"Many theories [look at the possibility that] the bacteria that make periodontal disease also produce a series of natural chemicals, such as prostaglandin," she says. "Interestingly, some of these same chemicals also trigger labor and delivery."

But whether treatment of gum disease could play a role in reducing the risk of a premature birth remains unknown, Jeffcoat says, because of the lack of knowledge about the precise link between the two.

However, periodontal experts say that, when it comes to gum disease and any potential risks, it's better to err on the side of caution.

"An estimated 25 percent of preterm births occur without doctors understanding why, so there's obviously a lot of potential causes we've yet to pin down -- and perhaps periodontal infection is one," says Dr. Michael McGuire, of Houston, president of the American Academy of Periodontology.

"We do know that any infection is a cause for concern in a pregnant woman," he says. "And certainly periodontal disease is an infection, so it's a good idea to have it taken care of."

What to Do: For more information on women and gum disease, visit the Web sites of the American Academy of Periodontology or the American Dental Association.

SOURCES: Interviews with Marjorie Jeffcoat, D.M.D., chairwoman, Department of Periodontics, University of Alabama School of Dentistry, Birmingham, Ala.; and Michael McGuire, D.D.S., Houston, president, American Academy of Periodontology; July 2001 Journal of the American Dental Association
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