You likely know that regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups are good for maintaining oral health—but did you know they may also help keep your heart healthy?
It’s true;rearchers are beginning to find links between poor oral health and an increased risk of heart disease. And yet the vast majority of Americans see a dentist irregularly at best; for instance, some estimate that only 1 in 9 seniors have visited a dentist within the last year. In fact, more than 80 percent of Americans may currently live with periodontal (or gum) disease.
Yet some studies show this could come at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Gum disease and heart disease—linked?
A recent study actually showed that if someone has gum disease, be that disease advanced or even mild, they are at a tremendously increased risk of developing heart disease. But why?
Scientists say that it has to do with inflammation caused by bacteria. That same inflammation that can cause painful gums can also put you at an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in your arteries.
In particular, inflammation can be present in your gums as part of gum disease in a few different ways. For instance, swollen gums are a pretty common dental issue, and can reflect two main conditions. The first, gingivitis, is simply an inflammation of the gum itself. The second, though, periodontis, can be far more serious, as it’s the result of an infection. As a result, periodontis often includes infected pus pockets—which are a problem, because they allow bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream.
But how does mouth bacteria end up in your blood?
It just so happens that your gums are full of blood vessels, so if the gums are disrupted—such as by pus pockets, for instance—that disruption allows bacteria into the bloodstream. That bacteria, then, has free rein to the rest of the body, where it can trigger inflammation elsewhere. And that inflammation can then cause major damage to blood vessels, including those found in your heart.
And scientists have noted that for those of us with healthy gums, we’re far less likely to have bacteria in our hearts. As it so happens, keeping our gums healthy may just be another way to help keep our heart healthy.
Additionally, researchers note that higher bacterial prevalence has also been correlated with more plaque in major arteries, like the carotid artery. Enough plaque build-up can cause a total blockage, and a blockage of a major artery like the carotid is a recipe for a disaster, such as a stroke. As a result, experts say that lowering our bacterial counts can be a major step toward stroke and heart attack prevention.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should just load up on antibiotics. After all, taking antibiotics when we don’t need them makes it more likely that they won’t work in the future, when we might really need them. Instead, we should focus on taking care of our oral health by practicing good dental hygiene, and the rest will likely come in time.
Lastly, some researchers note that part of the correlation between gum disease and heart disease may also be related to lifestyle factors. Quite simply, individuals with lifestyles who put them at greater risk for gum disease are also at higher risk for heart disease. For instance, smoking is a huge risk factor for both, as is poor diet or lack of exercise.
Additionally, many people who suffer from periodontal disease are diabetics, which is also a major cardiovascular health risk factor.
Still, in addition to making the lifestyle changes that make us less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, addressing our oral health and dental practices is also a good idea.
Even if the American Heart Association says there is no proven link that preventing gum disease can prevent heart disease, it’s still something you should want for yourself. Good health, quite simply, is good health, so you should want to take good care of your mouth just as you would take good care of your heart.
After all, plenty of research shows the two are related, even if we don’t completely understand how. After all, do you really want gum disease? Good dental hygiene is a great place to start—and it just might help your heart, too!