New Research Links Chronic Stress and Gum Disease

December 15, 2009 | Lehman College

Studies have shown that chronic stress is a possible culprit in ailments ranging from cancer to heart conditions. Now research indicates that Americans with high levels of stress are 55 percent more likely to suffer from periodontitis—a gum disease that weakens the bone supporting the teeth—with Mexican Americans the most susceptible, almost five times more likely to have this condition.

In addition to Mexican Americans, striking differences emerged in the study among men, blacks, those with fewer than 12 years of schooling, those who never visited a dentist, and current smokers.

According to the report’s lead author, Dr. Luisa N. Borrell of Lehman College, racial/ethnic minorities and low socioeconomic groups are more likely to be exposed to stress, which may explain their higher prevalence of periodontitis.

“Strong associations between stress and periodontitis were observed for Mexican Americans, who normally have a lower prevalence of this disease,” she notes. “This may mean they have not adopted coping responses to process chronic stressors that other groups may have historically been conditioned to handle.” Mexican Americans constitute the largest Hispanic subgroup in the U.S.

Dr. Borrell, who holds both a dental degree and a doctorate in epidemiologic sciences, looked at data from the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2004) with her colleague, Prof. Natalie D. Crawford, M.P.H., of the Columbia University School of Public Health. They examined whether stress levels were associated with the prevalence of periodontitis and whether this association differed by race/ethnicity, education, income or age.

According to their findings, published as an Online First in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the association that exists between stress and periodontitis among Americans varies by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status and “may be affected by cumulative exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage and racial discrimination.”

In the United States, they report, certain groups are at higher risk for periodontitis, notably non-Hispanic blacks and those with less education and lower income, as compared with non-Hispanic whites and those with greater education and income. Thus, they suggest, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic position may act as stressors that may increase the likelihood of having periodontitis in these groups. The article, “Social Disparities in Periodontitis among United States Adults: The effect of allostatic load,” may be viewed online.

Contact: Marge Rice / 718-960-4992