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You might not know it, but dental health can affect more than just the appearance of your teeth. Your dental hygienist probably reminds you all the time to brush and floss so that your teeth stay pearly white, but these healthy habits can actually affect other parts of your body too. Namely, your heart. Keeping your teeth and gums clean can also help you prevent heart disease.
Research shows that individuals who have periodontal disease (or gum infections) are twice as likely to develop heart disease, and their risk could be even greater than those who have high cholesterol. How could these two things be connected? It has to do with the bacteria found in the mouth.
What is gum disease?
Specific factors - such as diabetes, pregnancy, taking certain medications, obesity, poor diet or genetics - can increase the risk of gum disease. It is also more prevalent in men, individuals over 65 and smokers. However, poor dental health is the main cause.
By not following a consistent oral health routine, plaque builds up on the teeth. Plaque is a film of bacteria that sticks and eats away at your teeth. Everyone has some level of plaque because it forms from saliva, fluids and from eating foods, particularly sugary treats. If plaque is left untreated, it hardens and becomes tartar that can only be removed by a dentist. This bacterial buildup then causes cavities because it breaks down the enamel that protects teeth against decay. If this decay reaches the gum line, gum disease, which goes through multiple different stages, can develop.
The earliest and mildest form of gum disease is known as gingivitis. The signs of gingivitis include redness, swelling, tenderness, bad breath and bleeding while brushing and flossing. Gingivitis can occur around one tooth or throughout the entire mouth. The good news is that gingivitis is entirely reversible if you are able to develop healthy dental care routines. For example, brushing and flossing twice a day and scheduling biannual dental checkups.
However, when gingivitis goes untreated for a period of time it can develop into periodontitis which is an advanced form of gum disease that is more difficult to treat. When tartar is left to sit on the gums longer it damages the tissue and causes the gums to pull away from the teeth. This is known as “receding gums”. This causes pockets to form between the gums and teeth which can allow bacteria to build up and wear down the bone. Teeth will become loose as the bone deterioration accelerates and in severe cases, it can cause extreme tooth and gum pain, bad breath and pus.
During the earlier stages of periodontitis, dentists are able to treat the infection using non-surgical methods like scaling, root planing and antibiotics. Advanced periodontitis will usually require surgery to help prevent tooth loss and the spread of infection.
Gum Disease and the Heart
So what does gum disease have to do with the heart? Individuals with gum disease are two to three times more likely to have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the world, so researchers are interested in how to reduce it and the prevention of gum disease could be a solution.
However, while research hasn't found that gum disease will cause heart disease, there is a clear link between the two. The possible reason for this is related to inflammation which is the body’s common response to infection. When gums have gingivitis or periodontitis, they will become swollen and inflamed due to bacteria exposure. If this inflammation goes untreated and becomes chronic, this will trigger inflammation in other areas of the body. Chronic inflammation increases the risk of heart disease because it can result in plaque buildup in the arteries or even trigger blood clots.
Researchers have also found that bacteria in the mouth can be absorbed into the bloodstream which can lead to inflammation within blood vessels leading to atheroma formation, or a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can cause atherosclerosis. In addition, studies have shown bacteria from the mouth in the blood vessels of individuals who had strokes.
In addition, midlife tooth loss as a consequence of gum disease is related to coronary heart disease. Researchers studied adults between 45 and 60 who had 25 to 32 natural teeth at the start of the study. Those who had lost two or more by the time of the follow-up exam several years later had a 23% higher chance of developing heart disease.
While there is little doubt that the connection between these two diseases is there, researchers can’t conclude causation between the two. For example, people who have good oral hygiene habits might also take better care of their overall health thus leading to a reduced risk of heart disease. Gum and heart disease also share common risk factors including high blood pressure, smoking and lack of exercise, to name a few. This can make it challenging to state that gum disease is an independent risk factor for heart conditions.
Warning Signs of Periodontal Disease
The link between periodontal disease and heart disease is clear. To help you protect your gums and heart, watch out for these warning signs of periodontal disease:
- Red gums that are swollen or tender, and other painful conditions in your mouth
- Gums that are prone to bleeding when you brush or floss your teeth or when eating hard or tough food
- Gums that are receding from your teeth
- Having loose or separating teeth
- Pus deposits between your gums and teeth
- Mouth sores
- Persistent bad breath
- A change in how your teeth meet when you bite down
- A change in the fit of your partial dentures