A small preliminary study suggests that the health of an expectant mother's gums may affect her likelihood of a preterm birth.
The study compared oral inflammation and microbes in 33 women whose babies were born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, considered preterm, with 44 who had full-term deliveries.
"We observed that women with premature births more often had inflamed gums, with pockets and loss of the supporting tissue around their teeth compared to their peers with full-term pregnancies," said study author Dr. Valentin Bartha of Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany.
"If confirmed, these results could have implications for preventing preterm delivery, which occurs in 10% of births and accounts for up to 75% of perinatal deaths and more than 50% of developmental disorders in children," Bartha added.
Gum disease, also called periodontitis, is triggered by a microbial infection. It is characterized by gums that are red, bleeding, inflamed and sometimes swollen — the body's response to an unhealthy build-up of bacteria on the teeth. Such chronic inflammation can cause pockets and gaps around the teeth, destruction of the supporting tissues and bone, and eventually tooth loss.
For the study, the researchers collected information on women's ages, smoking habits, health conditions and medications. They evaluated gum bleeding, the depth of pockets and loss of attachment at each of several teeth.
"Inflammation around the teeth causes the supporting tissues to become permanently detached from the tooth surface," Bartha said in a news release from the European Federation of Periodontology. "When a probe can be inserted more than 3 millimeters along a tooth, this is called a pathological pocket." (Three millimeters is about 1/12th of an inch.)
The team also collected plaque samples and used gene sequencing to identify bacterial species.
The investigators found that women with preterm births had significantly greater loss of tooth attachment, more pockets measuring 4 mm or more, and different populations of bacteria on and under the teeth.
"We found that preterm mothers were more likely to have lost supporting tissues around the teeth, have a higher proportion of sites with deep pockets, and have unhealthy oral bacteria compared with full-term mothers," Bartha said.
"Birth weight was significantly lower for mothers with periodontitis compared to mothers with good oral health or just bleeding gums but without pathological pockets," he added.
Larger studies are needed to verify these preliminary findings. Earlier research has yielded similar findings.
The new study was presented in Copenhagen Friday at a meeting of the European Federation of Periodontology. Findings presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.