Does a healthy mouth equal a healthy heart? The indications appear to be yes! Doctors and researchers have been talking about and studying the relationship between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease for nearly two decades. While the exact details of the cause and effect relationship are still under investigation, many researchers (including Dr. P.K. Shah) and government agencies have come to the conclusion there is a link between periodontal disease and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. For this reason, maintaining optimal oral hygiene is an important component of not only heart health, but your overall health and well being.
What is gum or periodontal disease? Gum disease is an inflammation of the gums that affects the bone that surrounds and supports the teeth. Gum disease begins when a sticky, bacteria-laden film known as plaque builds up around your teeth. Plaque forms when starches and sugars in food interact with the bacteria normally found in your mouth. Plaque that is not removed by regular brushing and flossing can harden and form tartar. The bacteria in the plaque and tartar can cause a mild gum disease called gingivitis: an inflammation where the gums become red, swollen and can bleed easily. If not treated, gingivitis can advance to periodontal disease (periodontitis). In periodontitis the gums pull away from the root of the tooth, creating a tiny pocket of bacteria filled pus that gradually widens. Eventually, infection and inflammation will attack the tissue that holds the tooth to the jawbone, which can cause the tooth to loosen and possibly fall out.
Nearly half the adult population in the US is affected by gum disease. Gum disease can often be painless, so it is important to see your dentist right away if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Swollen, red, or tender gums
- Gums that bleed easily while brushing, flossing, or eating hard food
- Pus between the teeth and gums and sores in your mouth
- Persistent bad breath
- Buildup of hard brown deposits along the gum line
- Loose teeth or teeth that are moving apart
- Receding gums or longer appearing teeth
- Changes in the way dental appliances fit
Your gums are very vascular, meaning they’re full of blood vessels. When you have gum disease, the infected pockets of germy pus allow bacteria and other toxins to spread below the gum line and move into the bloodstream. Some studies indicate that when the bacteria from gum disease enter the bloodstream, they help to form the fatty deposits called plaque in the heart blood vessels. Over time, the plaque builds up and narrows and hardens your arteries. This results in atherosclerosis, a heart disease. Atherosclerosis limits the blood flow to your heart, putting you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.
Though not conclusive, some studies also suggest that the bacteria from gum disease in your bloodstream can trigger inflammation throughout the body (systemic inflammation). Inflammation is the body’s natural response to an infection or injury. When these bacteria reach the heart, they can attach themselves to any damaged area and cause inflammation. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can result in endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart. The American Heart Association has also stated that there is a causal association between inflammation caused by oral bacteria and cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and stroke. Controlling periodontal disease may decrease systemic inflammation and reduce the risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The health of your mouth can affect the health of your entire body. In addition to possible connections with heart disease and stroke, gum disease has also been closely linked to premature birth, diabetes, and other chronic health problems. In the mouth, gum disease can lead to pain, bone loss, and ultimately tooth loss. Our teeth are essential to healthy eating; when we lose the ability to chew well, it affects our overall nutrition and our body. Our teeth are integral to our smile and the structure of our face; tooth loss or discomfort with the way our mouth looks can lead to a loss of self-esteem and confidence. Follow these guidelines to maintain proper oral health and reduce your risk for gum disease:
• Quit smoking. Smokers are seven times more likely to get gingivitis, periodontitis and oral cancers than nonsmokers.
• Manage diabetes; high blood sugar can lead to infections. Diabetes can also lead to dry mouth, poorly healing gums and thrush (a yeast infection in the mouth and throat). Those who have diabetes and also smoke are 20 times more likely to have thrush or periodontal disease.
• Get regular preventive care checkups with your dentist. Proper plaque control consists of professional cleanings every six months.
• Brush your teeth a minimum of twice daily
• Floss your teeth regularly
• Make sure your dentures fit properly
• Eat a balanced diet, and reduce sugary and processed foods and drinks
• Manage your weight
• Control your blood pressure
• Reduce stress
• Get more exercise
Your body is the sum of many parts and it is important for your overall health to maintain each of those parts. Gum disease can be a sign of the general health of your body. By taking care of your oral health, you are also taking care of your heart. Be aware of the symptoms of gum disease, brush and floss daily, and get regular dental check-ups. Your smile and your heart will thank you!