Over the last decade, emerging evidence has suggested that there is a link between gum disease and heart disease. Until 2009, this link was poorly understood. With new evidence demonstrating how certain forms of bacteria found in periodontal cases can cause heart disease, the case for regular dental care has grown stronger.
Two Very Different Health Problems…
In order to understand the link between the two conditions, it is necessary to define gum disease.
This problem is caused as a result of not partaking in regular dental care; this means not brushing twice daily, and not visiting a dentist twice a year for check-ups. It is characterised by symptoms such as bleeding when brushing in milder cases, and can result in receding gums and eventual tooth loss in more severe cases.
Gingivitis can easily be avoided by brushing regularly, using mouthwash, visiting the dentist, and flossing. Periodontal disease is a progression, and potentially much more damaging.
Heart disease covers a broad spectrum of conditions; from mild incidents like hypertension, to moderate conditions like atherosclerosis (fat build up in the arteries), and severe emergencies like heart attacks and strokes. Common risk factors are genetics, obesity, cigarette/tobacco smoking, increased cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
…But With A Known Connection
According to Seymour (2009), the link between gum disease and heart disease may be down to the inflammatory markers that are produced by the patient when gum inflammation is encountered. These markers are a natural response to infection, and can be useful when battling it. However, as gingival problems are often chronic rather than acute, the body is continuously exposed to these inflammatory markers. When these markers become systemic, the heart and the circulatory system undergo continuous damage; as a result, there is a higher risk of heart disease.
While Seymour’s research has given us an insight into one potential link, an alternative explanation has been offered by a large scale Scottish study (BBC, 2010). After focusing on 11000 patients who had gum disease and heart disease, it was found that the bacteria streptococcus may be the culprit. Streptococcus is present in gingivitis, and it causes the body to produce more platelets, which gather together and clot in the arteries. With narrowing arteries comes the risk of various heart conditions. One such condition is hypertension, which can cause symptoms like dizziness and breathlessness. In addition to this, there is a risk that these clots will break away. Free clots in the bloodstream have the potential to cause heart attack and stroke. In addition to this, there is also the risk of clots causing a pulmonary aneurysm, which is hard to detect and can rapidly become fatal.
A recent study has questioned how close the link is between the two conditions. More research is needed.
Gingival diseases also have known links to diabetes.
While these risks and consequences may seem daunting, they can easily be prevented. As gum disease is caused by plaque, simple self-care at home can prevent its occurrence. This includes brushing teeth twice daily, flossing between meals, and using a mouthwash that has antiseptic properties. In addition to this, regular visits to the dentist will ensure that any rising problems are addressed immediately.
Finally, those who do develop gingival problems can minimise the effects with the use of dental care that is appropriate for its stage. With correct periodontal care, it is possible to not only experience better oral health, but also reduce your risk of heart disease—with very little effort.
BBC News (2010). Gum and heart link ‘breakthrough’. [online]
Seymour, R. (2009). Is gum disease killing your patient?. British Dental Journal, 206 (10), pp.551-2..