Healthy Teeth, Healthy Heart?
Experts say that your oral health could clue you in to the condition of your heart — so listen up! Here’s what you should know about the links between your teeth, gums, and ticker.
You brush, floss, and follow all your dentist’s commandments for healthy teeth and gums (kudos!). But did you know that those mouth-healthy habits may ultimately keep your heart healthy, too?
Research has found a surprising number of links between the state of your mouth and your heart. In fact, we now know that people who develop gum disease (either gingivitis, a milder form that results in inflammation and infection of the gums, or periodontitis, which develops when the inflammation and infection spread below the gum line) are nearly twice at risk for heart disease.
And in one study of 320 adults — half with heart disease — researchers found that these participants were also more likely to have gum disease, bleeding gums, and tooth loss.
What’s the connection? Researchers are still figuring that out.
Can Gum Disease Give You a Heart Attack?
“There is a very logical reason why the two may be connected,” says Peter M. Spalding, DDS, associate professor in the department of growth and development at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry in Lincoln. Experts are starting to understand that the underlying mechanism of cardiovascular disease is related to inflammation, he says.
Some types of bacteria normally occur in your mouth, but if you’re not properly flossing and brushing to remove plaque (that white film caused by bacteria that stick to your teeth after you eat), your risk for gum disease increases. And once gum disease has developed, you create an environment for bacteria that do not normally grow in your mouth, Dr. Spalding says.
What’s more, because gum disease causes your gums to bleed, bacteria can move into your bloodstream, setting up an inflammatory process in the blood vessels, he adds.
How is this related to your heart? The bacteria may increase your risk for heart disease by contributing to the formation of clots or further plaque build-up in your arteries that can interfere with blood flow to the heart.
However, it will take long-term clinical trials to more directly identify gum disease as a cause of heart disease. “We’re not going to have the answers to these questions for quite some time,” Spalding says.
Meanwhile, researchers are also uncovering possible links between gum disease and stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes, respiratory disease, and even preterm babies.
Important Steps for Your Teeth (and Heart)
According to the American Academy of Periodontology, half of all people over age 55 have gum disease. Gum disease is also the main reason people 35 and older lose their teeth.
Your risk for gum disease increases as you get older, but staying on top of your dental health should start in childhood. Regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups can help you keep gum disease at bay.
If you happen to notice any of these symptoms, let your dentist know immediately — they could be warning signs of gum disease.
Sour taste in the mouth
Persistent bad breath
Swollen, tender gums
Pain when chewing
And remember: Preventing gum disease — or treating it with deep cleanings, medication, or surgery — may just help you prevent heart problems down the road.