Studies have established a connection between gum disease and heart disease — though scientists are still trying to determine why.
You may have heard the odd claim that keeping your gums healthy can ward off heart disease. Naturally, this raises questions. Is there really a connection between gum disease and heart disease? How much evidence is there?
It’s true that in study after study, we have seen strong connections between gum disease and heart disease. But just because correlations exist between gum disease and heart disease doesn’t mean gum disease causes heart disease. If you’re looking to set the record straight on the connection between gum disease and heart disease, you’ve come to the right place.
What Is Gum Disease?
Gum disease is the everyday name for a disease called periodontitis. When bacteria is left to multiply in your mouth, it produces a biomass called plaque. Plaque on your teeth is harmless in small amounts, but too much plaque can inflame your gums, leading to infection, gum recession, and even tooth loss. Any stage of excessive plaque buildup and gum inflammation is called periodontitis.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, is an umbrella term that refers to various conditions that prevent blood flow in your heart. Results of heart disease include heart attack and stroke.
A heart attack occurs when any coronary artery in your heart becomes restricted, usually due to plaque buildup. This inhibits crucial blood flow, dangerously decreasing your heart’s function. Similarly, a stroke occurs when an artery carrying blood to your brain becomes blocked — either due to plaque buildup, a blood clot, or a number of other narrowing factors.
Is There a Connection?
Yes, there is a connection.
A major study from the NIH indicated that periodontitis correlates to a twenty percent increase in your risk for heart disease. Another study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology also demonstrated a significant relationship between the two diseases. Because nearly half of American adults have some degree of periodontitis, treating gum disease may well be the key to reducing our high rate of cardiac problems.
But as you might imagine, there are many other factors at play that increase the risks for both gum disease and heart disease. Smoking, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, unhealthy eating habits, and limited healthcare access are all factors that could lead to both periodontitis and coronary dysfunction.
A number of recent studies have attempted to eliminate all the extra variables, and isolate the connection between gum disease and heart disease. But these studies have led to mixed conclusions. A study of over one million people conducted by the European Society of Cardiology found that the essential connection between gum disease and heart disease was smoking. On the other hand, another major study concluded there may be a strong causal link after all.
In other words: the jury is still out on how strong the relationship actually is.
How Does This Connection Work?
Although studies have indicated a relationship between gum disease and heart disease, the exact mechanism of transmission remains unclear. At first glance, there seem to be obvious connections between the two diseases — coronary artery disease and gum disease are both caused by plaque. But the forms of plaque that cause gum disease and heart disease are quite different. Dental plaque cannot migrate from the gums to the arteries.
One theory is that bacteria from gum disease travels through your bloodstream, which inflames the blood vessels in your heart. This is improbable however, since antibiotics have little to no impact on heart attack rates.
An alternate theory claims that your body’s immune system reacts to dental plaque with gum inflammation — which leads your other blood vessels to become inflamed, too. Inflammation can narrow your blood vessels and lead to heart attack, stroke, and other heart problems.
How to Prevent Gum Disease
For now, we don’t know for certain whether the link between gum disease and heart disease is definitive. But we do know that it’s important to keep your gums healthy. This debate indicates that dental hygiene isn’t just cosmetic — it has the potential to prevent serious, life-threatening conditions.
To prevent gum disease, look after teeth. Brush your teeth twice a day, floss at least once a day, and visit your dentist for cleanings at least twice a year. For patient-centered care across the Denver Metro, give us a call at Espire today.