Heart Disease and Oral Health: The Heart of the Matter
Many villains have a sidekick. The number-one killer of both men and women is heart disease, and the research is suggesting that it, too, may have a key partner in crime—gum disease.
Heart disease is a term that applies to an array of health problems of the cardiovascular system. It's sometimes used to refer to the build-up of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis). This plaque is a collection of cholesterol, cellular waste, and other substances that stick to the inner lining of the blood vessel (artery). As this increases, the size of the artery narrows and the artery becomes more rigid. With significant plaque build-up, blood flow is reduced or even blocked completely, resulting in a heart attack. If the plaque ruptures, it can cause a stroke.
Gum disease is the term that describes the problems that arise from the build-up of plaque on the teeth. Dental plaque is made up of bacteria and their waste products in a substance similar to the slime observed on rocks in streams. As this plaque builds up on the teeth, it irritates the gums, making them quite sensitive, red and puffy, and prone to bleed easily. This condition is known as gingivitis, the only reversible form of gum disease. If left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis, a condition in which the gums pull away from the teeth, creating pockets that can become infected. Continued progression causes further loss of gum tissue, bone destruction and, eventually, tooth loss. Lost teeth can lead to drastic lifestyle changes, as it affects the ability to speak and chew, as well as overall appearance and self-image.
How does gum disease contribute to heart health?
While it's perfectly natural (and normal!) to have different kinds of bacteria in our mouths, not all oral bacteria are the friendly kind. The bacteria that causes gum disease produce toxins that can enter the bloodstream, where it triggers the body's inflammatory response, and in turn helps the plaque build-up in the arteries. This can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Recent research has found that people with moderate to severe periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from heart disease compared to those without. Periodontal disease can also negatively affect persons with existing heart conditions; for some of these patients, antibiotics must be taken prior to having dental work completed. In addition to heart disease, gum disease has also been linked to difficult-to-control diabetes, osteoporosis, preterm and low-birth weight babies, and respiratory diseases.
To prevent and treat gum disease, brush and floss your teeth twice daily. Dental plaque can build up and harden into tartar, which can not be removed by regular brushing and flossing. Regular visit to the dentist for in-office cleanings is the only way to remove tartar. Some people may also need to be placed on prescription mouth rinses to bring their condition under control. Your dentist will explain the most appropriate hygiene products for you. By maintaining good oral health, you can improve your overall health.