It has long been known that there was an anecdotal connection between gum disease and heart disease. But now science has evidence to back up this link. In fact, someone is more than twice as likely to have coronary artery disease if they also have periodontitis. So, if having healthy gums and pearly whites wasn’t reason enough to have good oral health, maybe a healthy heart will be extra incentive.
A study out of the University of Kiel in Germany has identified a specific chromosome that definitively links periodontal disease and heart problems. According to the study of more than 1000 patients, there was a genetic variation present at locus (the location of the gene) 9p31.3 that was identical in both patients with heart disease and periodontal disease. The findings were then verified in an additional group of patients with heart disease and periodontitis.
Now that a specific chromosome abnormality has been identified that links both heart disease patients and periodontal patients, steps can be taken to mitigate risk factors for both. The chromosome abnormality alone will not cause either problem, it will just make a person more susceptible to developing them.
Several theories exist as to exactly how the link works. One is that bacteria invades the body through the mouth, enters the blood stream, and then affects the cardiovascular system. One study in the Journal of Periodontology found that 60 percent of patients who had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease were found to have periodontal bacteria in their arteries. These bacteria can be a factor in the formation of blood clots as well as causing serious cardiac problems like infective endocarditis.
The Role Of Inflammation
Inflammation is a factor in muliple health conditions, which includes cardiovascular disease. Inflammation is part of a complex immune response of vascular tissue in response to harmful stimuli. Inflammation is the body’s attempt to heal itself, by rushing blood and other healing substances to the affected area. Without inflammation the body would never be able to heal itself. However chronic inflammation can leave the body vulnerable to diseases and conditions including periodontitis and atherosclerosis. For this reason, inflammation is a function that the body closely regulates.
According to a study published in the American Society of Microbiology’s journal Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology, elevated levels of systemic inflammatory mediators promote mechanisms of atherosclerosis. The same elevated inflammatory mediators are seen in those with periodontal disease. Inflammatory mediators are molecules that are releases by immune cells during times when harmful agents invade the body, usually in the form of pathogens like bacteria, though inflammation also occurs in the event of injuries as well.
In the case of atherosclerosis, inflammation can be particularly problematic. Inflammation rushes blood and fluids to the affected blood vessel as an immune response to a damaged or otherwise compromised vessel, but the problem is that the same blood that rushes to an area under immunological attack also brings more fat and cholesterol to the area, increasing the blockage that the body is trying to combat. Science now recognizes that in addition to lowering the levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol, helps, but unless the inflammatory response is also addressed, people are still in danger of more serious complications of heart disease.
New Treatment Guidelines
Because there is such a strong link between gum disease and heart disease, it may surprise some to find their dentist asking about their heart health or their cardiologist asking about their teeth.
New clinical recommendations outlined in a consensus paper between the American Journal of Periodontology and the American Journals of Cardiology advise that periodontologists inform patients of the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in patients with periodontal disease and assess their risk for future cardiovascular disease and provide guidance for them to reduce their risk factors.
The same paper also recommends that primary care physicians and cardiologists examine the mouth of their patients to look for basic signs of periodontal problems such as oral inflammation, receding gums and tooth loss. If signs of periodontal disease are found, patients should see a dentist to mitigate their risks.
Reducing The Risk
Since science is aware of the link between gum disease and cardiovascular health, those who are at risk for one, should take steps to reduce their risk for both conditions. Reducing the risk of gum disease is as simple as practicing good oral hygiene such as:
- Brush teeth at least twice daily
- Floss at least once daily (For tips on flossing, read How To Use Dental Floss For Proper Oral Care.)
- Use a water pick or mouthwash for additional cleaning
- See a dentist for a checkup twice a year
- Be sure to address any dental problems quickly
Reducing a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease is just as important, but not quite as easy since cardiovascular disease is progressive over a person’s lifetime. Some of the things people can do to reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or keep it from worsening include:
- Eat a well balanced diet low in fat, salt, sugar and calories and rich in fruits and vegetables and lean protein.
- Get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated, something as simple as yard work will do the trick.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep per night, since stress can make cardiovascular disease worse.
- Get a checkup at least once a year, more often if someone has already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease and periodontal disease can both have serious long-term effects on a person’s health, but there are things that people can do to reduce their risk of both conditions. By taking these simple steps, people can live longer, healthier, and happier lives, and that is reason enough for anyone to smile and show off those pearly whites.