Gum Disease and Heart Disease: Are They Connected or Are We Just Crazy?
Though not completely conclusive, plenty of evidence shows that your oral health holds clues to your overall wellness. More specifically, studies show a direct link between periodontal disease (infection of the gums and bone supporting teeth) and heart health. For more than a century scientists and researchers have proposed this connection, but it still isn’t a link many people make on their own. In fact, there are many skeptics. We hope this post will offer some illumination.
Both bone and connective tissues support your teeth. The periodontal ligament attaches to the cementum (outer layer) of the tooth root and the jawbone, holding your tooth in place. Also, to a lesser extent, the gingival tissues (gums) surrounding the teeth also hold them in place. In perfect condition, the gums firmly attach at the junction of crown (enamel) and root (cementum) with very little spacing. About one to three millimeters above the junction there is a shallow space between the periphery of the tooth and the gums called the gingival sulcus.
Bacteria readily colonize in the small gingival sulcus and form plaque. The bacteria metabolize food particles and produce acids. The acids induce an inflammatory response from the body, deepening the gingival sulcus into periodontal pockets. Bacteria migrate deeper into the pockets, resulting in more detachment at the root surface and eventually loss of connective tissue and bone. Dental professionals refer to the early stage of gum disease as gingivitis. Symptoms include bleeding, sensitivity, redness and swelling and pus along the gumline. As the disease progresses it becomes periodontitis. These symptoms often include receding gumline, persistent bad breath, loose or separating teeth, and eventually tooth loss.
The Connection Between Gum Disease and Heart Disease
In a recent study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, lead author Moise Desvarieux, MD, PhD, and his colleagues found people with high levels of certain disease-causing bacteria in the mouth were more likely to have atherosclerosis, or deposits of plaques the inner walls of the arteries. They found it specifically true in the carotid artery. (Note: the plaques in your arteries are made up of fats and other substances and are not the same as dental plaque, which is made up of bacteria, acid, saliva and food particles.) These fatty deposits build up and narrow the arteries. If the arteries ever get completely clogged it could lead to stroke or heart attack. So what is the connection? There are two main theories.
Theory 1: Experts have found the same bacteria from dental plaque clumped in arterial plaque. They know these bacteria enter the bloodstream through the gums. From there, they stick to the fatty plaques and contribute to clogging.
Theory 2: Another possibility is directly linked to the body’s inflammatory response to gum disease-causing bacteria. Experts know that the body’s natural response to infection is inflammation. As bacteria from the mouth travel through the bloodstream, they could illicit the same response, swelling the blood cells, narrowing the arteries and slowing blood flow.
There is no question that there is a connection between gum disease and heart disease. The question lies in the exact relationship. It is still unclear if gum disease causes heart disease or vice versa. It doesn’t particularly matter if the “chicken or the egg” comes first. What matters is you now have a better understanding of this important connection and do what you can to improve your oral and overall health.
Can Brushing Save Your Life?
If you worry about heart disease becoming a problem, one thing you can do is pay close attention to your oral health. Work with your dentist and hygienist to do what you can about preventing gingivitis and periodontitis. It all starts with an established dental hygiene routine of brushing and flossing daily. Eat healthy foods, exercise daily and take control of condition that could increase your risk.