Healthy teeth and gums can give you a great smile. Now, scientists are finding they can give you a great reason to smile, too. There's growing evidence that having a healthy mouth can help you have a healthier heart.
To understand the likely link between heart and gums, it helps to understand periodontal disease, also known as gum disease.
Periodontal disease is an infection of the gums. It is caused by a buildup of plaque on the teeth. Plaque is the film that forms on teeth when bacteria, grow on them. Regular brushing and flossing help remove the bacteria and film. But after plaque hardens, it takes a dental professional to remove it.
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention says about half of Americans age 30 and older have periodontal disease. Many of us have had a mild form that causes gums to redden and swell. But that can turn into a more serious form.
The Johns Hopkins Health Alert, Healthy Teeth, Healthy Heart?, explains how that happens. When plaque builds up, the bacteria that live in it release toxins. These toxins cause the body's immune system to react. It sends white blood cells to fight the infection. The toxins and the substances released by the white blood cells cause problems. They break down the tissue and bones that hold teeth in place, resulting in tooth loss.
The bacteria and the toxins they make may hurt more than your teeth. They are believed to have a damaging effect on your heart and arteries as well. In fact, people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease. The American Academy of Periodontology, or AAP, explains the possible link.
One theory is that bacteria from the mouth affect the heart when they enter the bloodstream. They may lead to clots in the heart's blood vessels. These clots can block blood flow and lead to a heart attack.
Another theory is that the inflammation caused by periodontal disease contributes to swelling of the arteries. This limits the path through which blood can flow. And, it makes it easier for a clot to block these already narrowed pathways.
Other studies point to a connection between periodontal disease and stroke. Many strokes are caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain. The same bacteria that lead to blood clots in heart arteries might affect those in the brain.
A study presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2011 found more evidence of a connection. It also underlined the importance of professional cleanings. More than 100,000 people in Taiwan took part in the study for seven years. Those who had professional dental cleanings had a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. Heart attack risk was 24% lower and stroke risk was 13% lower, compared to those who never had a dental cleaning. Hsin-Bang Leu, M.D., was a co-author of the study. She said professional cleanings appear to reduce the growth of bacteria that can lead to heart disease or stroke.
Anyone can get it. And many of us have had a mild form. But those at greatest risk are:
Here are the warning signs to watch for:
Mild periodontal disease can be treated with good dental hygiene. More serious cases may need additional professional care, such as scaling and root planing, which involves cleaning the root surfaces of your teeth.
Prevention is the best medicine. The American Dental Association, or ADA, recommends taking these basic steps:
More study is needed to confirm the link between your gums and your heart. But the evidence is very strong. Good dental care is one easy way to help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The bottom line is this: Following the ADA's guidelines for preventing gum disease might also be a very heart-healthy strategy.
* This information is for general educational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical or dental professional. The information presented is not a guarantee or representation that the procedures are covered under a Humana Dental or Vision Plan.
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