You might think the mouth and heart don’t have much in common. But increasing evidence suggests they may be closely linked.
Researchers suspect that bacteria present in gum disease can travel throughout the body, triggering inflammation in the heart’s vessels and infection in heart valves.
This could affect a lot of people. A groundbreaking study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of American adults age 30 and older and 70 percent of those 65 and older have some stage of gum disease. Let’s dive into each of these potential risks.
Inflammation in the Heart’s Blood Vessels
Research points to a link between gum disease and inflammation that can precede heart attacks, strokes, and sudden vascular events. For the time being, the exact nature of the cause-and-effect relationship is unclear.
“Inflammation can be linked to many different reasons and sources. That’s why it’s hard to definitively prove it’s just one thing,” says Marietta Ambrose, MD, MPH, FACC, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
For people with heart disease of blood vessels, inflammation caused by gum disease can add to that process.
The risk is even greater when high cholesterol is added to the mix. Researchers have uncovered oral bacteria in the fatty deposits of people with atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries. Untreated, those deposits can narrow arteries or break loose and clog them, causing a heart attack or stroke.
Infection in the Heart’s Valves
People with heart valve disease are particularly at risk when gum disease is present, Dr. Ambrose says.
“The bacteria that live in your mouth when you have gum disease can cross into your bloodstream, enter the heart, and directly infect the vulnerable heart valves,” she says. “That’s especially concerning in our patients who have artificial heart valves.”
Infections in the bloodstream, especially those that affect the heart valves, need immediate attention from a cardiologist.
Reducing Your Risk
The good news is that preventing and treating mild gum disease, known as gingivitis, is straightforward.
Whether you have heart disease or not, it’s important to have regular dental cleanings as part of your long-term preventative care. A good oral hygiene routine includes brushing and flossing at least twice a day and seeing a dentist at least every six months for an evaluation and cleaning.
“Everybody should get checked out by their dentist the same way we get the rest of our body checked,” Dr. Ambrose says. “Just like with high blood pressure, you often don’t know that there’s a problem until it’s too late. Even if you brush and floss like you’re supposed to, it’s still important to have a dentist assess your oral health because you may need extra treatments.”
If you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, do a brief self-exam in front of a mirror. While a lot of the symptoms don’t become prevalent until the advanced stages, according to the American Academy of Periodontology, there are several noticeable warning signs:
- Red, swollen, or tender gums
- Bleeding while brushing, flossing, or eating hard food
- Receding gums
- Loose or separating teeth
- Persistent bad breath
Any of those symptoms warrant a visit to the dentist. Once gum disease is properly managed, the higher risk to your heart should become less and can even return to normal, according to Dr. Ambrose.
If there have already been consequences from gum disease, we have to address that separately,” Dr. Ambrose says. “For example, if someone has an infection that has gone to a heart valve, we have to treat that separately. If there’s a lot of damage to the heart valve, we may consider replacing or fixing it. In all of these cases, we always send our patients to see a dentist.”