February is American Heart Month! We all know that a healthy diet and regular exercise are great for a healthy heart, but here’s a lesser known fact: your oral health has a big impact on your heart health, too!
People with periodontal (gum) disease may be two times more likely to develop heart disease compared with people with healthy gums. How are oral health and heart health linked? Two interconnected factors: inflammation and the spread of oral bacteria through the bloodstream.
Inflammation of the Gums
Inflammation is a significant predictor and risk factor for heart disease. It is also a very common sign of gum disease. Sometimes, inflamed gums are caused by something as simple as a bit of food or debris lodged between teeth and irritating the gums - if this is the case, flossing gently should remove the irritating object. (If it does not, visit the dentist so that the object can be removed safely without causing damage to your gums or teeth!)
However, inflamed gums can also be a major indicator of gum disease. Usually due to poor oral hygiene, periodontitis (gum disease) begins when bacterial plaque builds up above and below the gum line, causing irritation and swelling. Inflamed tissues build up and release toxins and bacteria over time. In the mouth, if left untreated, this results in the gradual deterioration of the soft tissues and bone that hold our teeth into place.
Chronic or persistent cases of gum disease are particularly worrisome when it comes to heart health, because if inflammation is present in the mouth long-term, it can also be present elsewhere in the body – due to the spread of oral bacteria through the bloodstream.
The Spread of Bacteria
Researchers have found remnants of oral bacteria within blood vessels in the body far from the mouth. Bacteria and toxins from the mouth are carried through the bloodstream throughout the body, which can cause serious and potentially life threatening issues over time.
Numerous studies have found links between the spread of oral bacteria and its effects on heart health, such as: blood vessel inflammation and damage, plaque buildup in arteries (atherosclerosis), tiny blood clots, bacterial growth in the heart’s inner lining (endocarditis), and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Good oral health is particularly important for those who have weak or artificial heart valves, because bacteria introduced to the bloodstream from the mouth can attach themselves to abnormal heart valves, greatly increasing the risk of infection and other complications.
Healing and Prevention
Gum disease is a very common condition, with approximately 1 in 2 American adults having some stage of gum disease. Early and moderate stages of gum disease should be treated immediately, but during these stages the disease is usually entirely reversible with good oral hygiene and a dental “deep cleaning” (aka scaling and root planing treatment) if necessary. Advanced stages of gum disease often require surgical treatments, such as pocket reduction surgery, gum grafts, regenerative procedures to rebuild lost bone.
Though it is all too common, the truth is that gum disease is an almost entirely preventable disease! The key to not developing gum disease is simple: good at-home oral hygiene routines and regular dentist checkups. Brushing and flossing regularly only takes a handful of minutes out of every day, and those few minutes will go incredibly far in keeping your teeth and gums - and heart - healthy!
Love your mouth – it’s good for your heart!
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