Oral health and its connection to cardiac health
There’s a reason we’re all attracted to pearly white smiles. Beautiful teeth have always been a sign of good health. Still, scientists are uncovering new connections between oral health and systemic wellness every day. The link between oral health and cardiac health is a sterling example of the unexpected ways that taking care of your teeth can help you prevent serious health problems.
What does the research say?
Cardiologists and periodontists (the people who treat gum disease) have been studying the link between gum disease and heart disease for several decades. Most agree that there is a link. Dozens of studies have shown that if you have gum disease, your chances of having heart disease shoot up. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that gum disease causes heart disease. It might be that people who neglect their oral health are more likely to neglect other aspects of their health, like diet and fitness, which could cause heart disease.
Could poor oral health cause heart disease?
The jury is still out on whether or not poor oral health causes heart disease, but that hasn’t stopped a few scientists from proposing models for the progression from gum disease to heart disease.
One possibility involves bacteria entering your bloodstream through your gums. Not only will more bacteria build up in your mouth if you don’t brush and floss regularly, you may develop gingivitis (swollen and bleeding gums), which could allow the bacteria in your mouth to enter your bloodstream. Once the bacteria enter your bloodstream, they might begin building up plaques which lead to atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of your blood vessels). Atherosclerosis will make it harder for blood to move through your blood vessels, which means your heart will have to double down on its effort to circulate blood. This stress could eventually lead to a heart attack. Studies have supported this theory by showing that the bacteria associated with gum disease can also be found in blood vessels that are undergoing atherosclerosis.
The bacteria from your mouth might also reach your heart through your bloodstream and cause direct damage to your cardiac tissue. If bacteria settle in your heart, they can cause endocarditis (infection of the cardiac tissue), which weakens the heart and makes it less efficient at pumping blood.
A third possibility involves systemic inflammation triggered by gum disease. People who have gum disease usually have elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a trigger for inflammation, so it’s possible that the elevated levels of CRP could cause inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation in the blood vessels would restrict blood flow, again making the heart work harder and putting you at risk for a heart attack.
Who is most at risk for these problems?
People who have gingivitis or advanced periodontal disease have the highest risk of developing heart disease due to poor oral health. Remember, the bacteria in your mouth have to have access to your bloodstream to cause serious damage. Healthy gums will act as a barrier between the bacteria and the rest of your body.
Unfortunately, up to 80% of Americans are living with gingivitis or periodontal disease–which means they are at risk for developing heart disease. If you notice that:
- your gums are sore and inflamed
- your gums bleed when you brush your teeth or floss
- your gums are receding to expose more of your teeth
- you frequently have bad breath or wake up with a bad taste in your mouth
you might be dealing with gum disease. You’ll want to have it checked out by your dentist!
How can you reduce your risk?
A good oral hygiene routine is the best way to defend yourself against oral bacteria reaching your bloodstream. Begin with the basics. Make sure you’re brushing your teeth for two minutes at least twice a day. You should be using a comfortable toothbrush that reaches all the way back to your molars and a high-quality toothpaste. (Your dentist can recommend the right brand for your teeth, since everyone has different levels of sensitivity). After you brush your teeth, floss to remove any stubborn debris between your teeth. Any material you leave behind becomes bacteria food! Last but not least, make sure you’re going to the dentist regularly for deep cleanings to kill bacteria at their source.