Until recently, regular brushing and flossing of teeth were considered the main ways to prevent gum disease.
But scientists are increasingly investigating the potential of certain foods and plant compounds shown to have a positive effect on oral health.
This week researchers from the Case Western Reserve University in the US who examined data from 12,110 individuals reported that those who exercised, had healthy eating habits and maintained a normal weight were 40 per cent less likely to develop periodontitis.
More than 30 per cent of the population is thought to suffer from periodontitis, an infection of the gums that can result in tooth loss, but also leads to heart disease, diabetes and pre-term labour.
And as advances in dental medicine allow more people to keep their teeth as they grow older, understanding how to prevent gum diseases is becoming increasingly important.
The trial, published in the August issue of the Journal of Periodontology (vol 76, issue 8, pp1362-6), also showed that periodontis was reduced by 29 per cent for those individuals who only met two of the healthy behaviours and 16 per cent in those that met at least one.
Lead author Mohammad S. Al-Zahrani from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (and alumnus of Case Western Reserve University's School of Dental Medicine and Case School of Medicine) and colleagues used data on weight, eating and exercise from people participating in the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III).
Participants were monitored for 24 hours on their food intake and also questioned about nine, common physical activities including walking a mile or more without stopping, jogging, bike riding, aerobic dancing or swimming.
If individuals reported five or more moderate physical activities or three intensive activity sessions a week, it was considered healthy. Weight was considered within normal range if it fell within the body mass index of 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m² (obesity was considered at 25 kg/m²).
The researchers concluded that the healthy behaviours such as exercise and diet that lower the risks of diabetes also can lower the risk factors for periodontitis.
Exercise is known to reduce the C-reactive protein in the blood associated with inflammation in the heart and periodontal disease, while healthy eating habits, which builds the body's defenses against disease, also reduce the production of plaque biofilm, which is the primary epidemiological factor associated with periodontal disease, explained the researchers.
"Since oral health professionals may see their patients two or four times a year, it gives them several opportunities to promote these healthy behaviours," noted the researchers.