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Could Your Gums be a Key to Your Heart Health?

Could Your Gums be a Key to Your Heart Health? Heart in Speech BubbleThree Tips for Healthier Gums This Heart Month

By Kristen Brocavich, DDS and Srinivas R. Myneni, DDS, PhD

February 2018 - From a young age, we are always reminded of the importance of taking care of our teeth. The teeth and gums help us to chew, speak, and of course, make up our beautiful smiles. In support of Heart Month, it’s critical to recognize that proper oral health care can have an added benefit: a healthier heart. Many undiagnosed chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, can present in the mouth in the form of gum disease making the gums an important window into our overall health. 

Gum disease, which can be broken down into gingivitis and periodontitis, is an inflammatory disease of the gums due to a buildup of dental plaque. As the dental plaque accumulates, the body tries to eliminate the bacteria, which leads to inflammation of the gums known as gingivitis. If left untreated, this inflammation can affect the bone that supports the teeth and gums, leading to periodontitis. Signs of periodontitis include red inflamed gums which may bleed when brushing, bad breath, loose teeth, or teeth shifting apart from one another. Within the United States, approximately 47% of adults 30 years and older have been diagnosed with a form of periodontitis. However, this percentage is an underestimation, because many cases are undiagnosed. 

Cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death among men and women in the United States and is caused by the formation of arterial plaques which leads to narrowing of blood vessels. Patients with cardiovascular disease are at a high risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke due to the narrowing of these vessels. Risk factors of developing cardiovascular disease include smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet. In addition to these risks, patients with moderate to severe periodontitis have been shown to be at an increased of developing cardiovascular disease as well.  A study showed that men younger than 50 years with periodontal disease can have an increased risk of 72% to get cardiovascular disease. (DeStefano, 1993).

Although the exact mechanism on how periodontitis and cardiovascular disease are related remains unknown, it is important to note that both diseases are caused by inflammation. In patients with moderate to severe periodontitis, there is an abundance of dental plaque, which has the ability to travel systemically through the bloodstream. The bacteria within the dental plaque can travel to the heart and adhere within the walls of the heart and vessels. Like in the mouth, the presence of these bacteria leads the body to emit a response, which results in inflammation. Clinically, this can lead to increased arterial plaque formation, possible heart attack or stroke, as well as exacerbation of an existing cardiovascular condition. 

With Heart Month upon us, let’s review some healthy tips to have healthy gums, a healthy heart and healthier you.

1. Routine Dental Exams and Cleanings – If it’s been 6 months, a year or longer, it’s time to get back to your dentist for an exam and cleaning. Routine dental exams will help to detect oral diseases early, as well as help to prevent the progression of disease. 
2. Oral hygiene: Going to the dentist to get a checkup and cleaning is the first step towards a healthier you. At home, it’s up to you to keep your teeth and gums clean and disease free.  The ADA recommends brushing with a soft toothbrush twice daily for two minutes and flossing every day.
3. Routine Exams with your Primary Care Physician: In addition to seeing your dentist routinely, chronic illnesses such as heart disease can be prevented by early intervention and detection by your physician.