Your Gums and Your Heart: More Connected Than You Think

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It’s a relationship acknowledged by both the American Dental Association and the American Heart Association: gum disease and heart disease share an undeniable connection. Those with poor oral health are significantly more likely to suffer cardiovascular problems, yet no one can quite figure out why. Various theories have left researchers with questions still unanswered: unable to contradict the connection, unable to fully explain it.

Let’s take a closer look into the link between your heart and your gums!

A Curious Association

Sure, gum disease and heart disease both have to do with plaque.

It’s plaque that clogs your arteries when you have heart disease. It’s plaque that builds up around your teeth and starts causing inflammation and swelling in your gums. But the types of plaque involved are entirely different—for gum disease, the plaque is a film made up of bacteria from all the foods you’ve consumed. For heart disease, the plaque is a fatty substance made up of calcium, cholesterol, and other materials found in the blood.

So, the question is, why the correlation? Researchers are puzzled by the link between heart disease and gum disease that continually appears. Across the board, studies demonstrate that those with poor oral health have higher rates of cardiovascular problems than those with good oral health. In fact, according to Harvard Health, “People with gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) have two to three times the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular event.” Yet studies that have sought to define and explain this correlation have failed to do so.

In a 2018 study, researchers analyzed data from nearly a million people who experienced more than 65,000 cardiovascular events (including heart attacks) and found that: After accounting for age, there was a moderate correlation between tooth loss (a measure of poor oral health) and coronary heart disease. When smoking status was considered, the connection between tooth loss and cardiovascular disease largely disappeared.

The ambiguities do not erase the fact that there is an undeniable connection. Below, we’ll explore a few theories that researchers have for how exactly these conditions may be linked.

Shared Risk Factors

Some have suggested that this correlation between gum disease and cardiovascular conditions may exist due to shared risk factors.

For instance, if you drink soda every single day, that will increase your risk of gum disease. Research estimates that it will also increase your risk of a heart attack by 20%. The same unhealthy habit of downing a soda every day can have implications for both your gums and your heart.

This principle may serve to explain why we see the correlations we do. Smoking, an unhealthy diet, poor access to healthcare—all these and more are outside circumstances that will heighten the risk for both heart and gum disease.

The Bacteria Theory

The next theory, explained by Dr. Robert Shmerling of Harvard Health Publishing, has to do with the bacteria living in your mouth. Gross as it may sound, there’s millions of bacteria crawling around in your mouth at any given moment. The good news is that most of them are harmless. The bad news is that some of them aren’t harmless. Some of them can cause gum disease, and the same bacteria that can cause gum disease can escape into your bloodstream and travel to the rest of your body. Dr. Shmerling says that when this bacteria gets into blood vessels, “They cause blood vessel inflammation and damage; tiny blood clots, heart attack and stroke may follow. Supporting this idea is the finding of remnants of oral bacteria within atherosclerotic blood vessels far from the mouth.”

However, if this theory were solid, you would expect antibiotics to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by clearing away that pesky bacteria. Dr. Shmerling notes that antibiotic treatment has not proven effective in this way, making this theory uncertain at best.

An Independent Risk Factor

It is possible that gum disease is simply an independent risk factor for heart disease. This would mean that having gum disease in and of itself increases your chances of having cardiovascular issues. Experts see inflammation as the grounds for this explanation.

Periodontal disease increases the body’s burden of inflammation,” explains one periodontist. The red, puffy, painful gums we see in someone with gum disease makes this obvious. What you might not know is that chronic inflammation is a major risk factor in certain forms of heart disease, which would make unhealthy gums an independent risk factor for developing cardiovascular problems.

Prevention is the Best Cure

We’ve looked at three different explanations for the connection between gum disease and heart disease—all plausible, none definite. Though we do not know exactly why these two conditions show up in conjunction so often, we do know that it happens. The best strategy we can adopt is to mitigate the risks we know about for both. After all, as they say, prevention is the best cure. If gum disease is even potentially an independent risk factor for heart disease, then that’s all the more incentive to maintain healthy gums. If excessive soda is a risk factor for both heart disease and gum disease, then that’s all the more reason to reduce your soda intake so as to protect you from both diseases at once.

As always, proper oral hygiene is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. You should be brushing twice a day for at least two minutes, flossing at least once a day, and visiting the dentist regularly. These practices will help keep gum disease at bay, and who knows? They may ward off heart disease, too.

If you have further questions about the connection between these conditions or would like to schedule your next appointment, please contact our office today.

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