It can save your life
Terry Poulos, HBSc, DDS
Many sudies suggest oral tooth health, specifically gum disease, is related to serious conditions such as heart disease.
Many of us work hard to prevent heart attacks and strokes; we run, bike, swim, and watch what we eat. Of course, all those things are important, but what about our toothbrushes and floss? Their importance to overall health may surprise you.
Many studies suggest oral health, specifically gum disease, is related to serious conditions such as heart disease. This relationship has been known to exist for some time, though it was difficult to determine whether the link was caused by other factors including smoking, drinking, and lack of exercise.
Now, after researchers have successfully factored out such variables, the Academy of Periodontology reports that people with periodontal (gum) disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease, also known as heart disease. Experts urge that the evidence is not crystal clear, but theyare intrigued.
Heart Disease and Plaque
Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, develops when fats and other substances in the blood stick to the sides of our arteries, specifically the arteries that supply blood and oxygen directly to the heart.
These deposits, or “plaques,” can build up along the artery walls, narrowing or clogging the blood flow that is so important to any living tissue. If they block the flow completely, or if one of the plaques dislodges, a heart attack or stroke (if the blockage occurs in the arteries that feed the brain) can occur.
It is important to note that these plaques are not related to the plaque that a dentist or hygienist scrapes off your teeth. Dental plaque is a complex, sticky residue comprised mainly of bacteria, polysaccharides, or complex sugars, and food debris. It is the causative agent in cavities and gum disease.
The Gums-Heart Connection
One theory to explain the correlation between periodontal disease and coronary artery disease holds that bacteria indigenous to the mouth can enter via the gums and colonize or clump in and around the plaques or fatty deposits on the arteries, directly contributing to the narrowing, blockage, or clot.
Another more popular theory is rooted in the body’s own self-defence mechanism—inflammation or swelling. The inflammatory response is triggered by mediators, such as C-reactive protein. Bacteria originating from the oral cavity and travelling through the bloodstream are thought to trigger the release of mediators, causing blood cells to swell, thus contributing to narrowing of the arteries and increasing the risk of blockage.
Researchers have been clear about the role of inflammation in many diseases including periodontal disease, heart disease, and arthritis. Considering how similar the inflammatory process is throughout the body, it is not difficult to imagine one disease process having an influence on another. Many doctors routinely screen for C-reactive proteins in blood tests to diagnose patients at risk.
Though there seems little controversy over the connection between periodontal disease and heart disease, it is not clear if one is directly responsible for the other.
It is important to remember, though, that the connection could still be significant because early detection of cardiovascular disease is often impeded by the lack of symptoms. We can’t feel our arteries hardening, or an imbalance in our blood chemistry, but we just might notice our gums bleeding.
Clearly, anyone at risk or concerned about cardiovascular disease should still be focused on the obvious lifestyle parameters: eat healthy, exercise most days of the week, don’t smoke, lose weight if you’re overweight, etc.
Your oral health should be considered an important part of this list and should be given the same reverence. So brush, floss, and you’ll be one step closer to a long, healthy life!