Much has been made about a possible link between the health of teeth and gums and the health of the heart. While we can certainly see a correlation between overall body health and oral health, it has been difficult to prove direct causative links for disease or prevention between the two.
Oral Health – What We Do Know
We do know that if not managed properly, the billions of microscopic bacteria in the mouth can be responsible for serious gum disease. Regular brushing and flossing of teeth is important to prevent the build-up of plaque that can result in tooth decay as well as the development of gingivitis and the more advanced form of gum disease known as periodontitis. The same type of bacteria found in oral infections has also been found in arterial plaque in the heart and elsewhere. This type of plaque can lead to a heart attack. What has not been definitively proven, however, is that the one can cause the other.
The Inflammation Connection
If there is a connection between oral health and heart health, it may exist in the development of inflammation. When plaque builds up in the mouth, it stimulates the release of toxins similar to proteins that can be found in the walls of arteries or even in the bloodstream. When the immune system responds to these toxins, it can result in damage to the walls of blood vessels and even increase the likelihood of a blood clot. There is also a possibility that inflammation in the mouth somehow jumpstarts system-wide inflammation in the entire body. When this happens in the arteries, it can result in a heart attack or even a stroke.
No Evidence for Causality
While it is true that heart disease and periodontitis share several risk factors, it has been difficult to provethat one causes the other or, more importantly, that treating gum disease can prevent the accumulation of the kind of plaque that clogs arteries and can produce a heart attack or stroke.
What Shared Risk Factors Can Tell Us
The health of the mouth is often a good indicator of overall health. Moreover, people with periodontal disease often have the same risk factors that are detrimental to the heart and blood vessels. Smoking, for example, is a behaviour that can result in both poor oral health as well as problems in the circulatory system. Diabetes is another condition that can produce inflammation in the body. People who smoke or who have diabetes may both experience diseases of the mouth as well as the blood vessels. Again, although there is this connection, it may just be an independent association.
Lowering Heart Disease Risk
At present, there are several known ways that people can lower their risk of developing heart disease. These include quitting smoking, managing body weight, controlling blood pressure and staying active. More recent research is also suggesting that sugar and processed foods are actually a huge factor in the development of disease causing inflammation in the body.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that treating gum disease will lessen the possibility of either a heart attack or a stroke, it is interesting to note that there are similarities in the preventive measures one employs for both heart disease and oral disease. Quitting smoking should certainly be high on anyone’s list, as it has a deleterious impact on the health of teeth and gums as well as the heart. Sugar would appear to be the new Public Enemy #1. It has been shown to be the chief culprit behind dental caries and associated gum infections, as well as a key factor in worsening the inflammation associated with heart disease. When you add in the risk of diabetes and obesity, it might make you think twice about having that second helping of pie at your next meal.