Does a healthy mouth equal a healthy heart? More and more, the research says "yes." Doctors have been talking about the potential link for nearly two decades and with good reason. Heart disease is a serious problem around the world. So is poor oral health. Could better brushing and flossing give you a healthier heart? And could dentists take a peek inside your mouth and see if you're at risk for heart disease?
So, What's the Link?
In a word, inflammation, or swelling. Scientists know that it leads to hardened arteries, also called atherosclerosis. That's a condition that makes it hard for blood to flow to your heart. It puts you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke. Inflammation is also a sure sign of gum disease. Sore, swollen gums are the main symptom. There are two main types: gingivitis, which causes red, painful, tender gums, and periodontitis, which leads to infected pockets of germy pus. That's the type that raises the worry for heart problems. It allows bacteria and other toxins to spread below the gum line.
Studies show that the bacteria found in periodontal disease -- including Streptococcus sanguis, which plays a role in strokes-- spreads to the heart. Some research suggests that the more bacteria you have from gum-disease, the thicker your carotid arteries may be. If they're too thick, blood can't flow to your brain. That can cause a stroke.
This doesn't mean you need to rush out for antibiotics before your next dental visit. Guidelines for antibiotic use before dental procedures have changed in recent years. If you take them when it's not necessary, you might find they don't work when you do need them. Ask your doctor if you need to take them.
While bacteria likely play a role in dental heart health, doctors say your lifestyle choices are a factor, too. "People with bad periodontal disease tend to have bad health habits in general," Boyden says. "They aren't taking care of themselves. Many are smokers. They probably aren't exercising; they may not be eating well. We know all of those things are some of the strongest predictors of heart disease." A lot of people with periodontal disease also have diabetes, which is another strong risk factor for heart disease, he adds.
Brush Your Teeth, Boost Your Heart?
The American Heart Association says there's no evidence that you can prevent heart disease by preventing gum disease. But it's important to get regular dental checkups -- including dental X-rays. You should also be sure to treat any gum disease early if you want to save your choppers and stay healthy. "If you are aggressive about treating your mouth health, your overall health gets better, too," Boyden says. So go ahead -- brush your teeth a bit longer or floss a little more often. Everyone likes a clean and healthy mouth, and maybe your heart just might love it, too.
Contributions by Thomas Boyden, Jr., MD. and Scott Merritt, DMD