Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. When it comes to taking good care of your heart, you’re probably familiar with all of the usual advice: eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke. But what about brushing your teeth and keeping regular dental appointments?
It may seem like your dental health and cardiovascular health are completely separate. However, research has shown that people with oral health issues—such as gum disease and tooth loss—have a higher risk of heart problems, such as coronary artery disease.
While taking good care of your teeth alone isn’t enough to prevent heart disease, it’s important for everyone to practice good oral hygiene. It also may reduce your risk of other health issues.
Oral Health and Heart Health: What’s the Connection?
Research has revealed several different connections between oral health and heart disease. First, studies show that people with gum disease—such as gingivitis or periodontitis—have a higher risk of heart disease than someone with healthy gums. In a 2016 study of more than 800 patients, those with periodontitis had a significantly higher risk of heart attack, even after adjusting for factors such as smoking habits or diabetes.
Tooth loss in adulthood is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In a study of adults between the ages of 45 and 69, those who lost two or more teeth over the course of eight years had a 23 percent increased risk of heart disease, compared to participants with no tooth loss.
Additionally, oral health symptoms can often provide doctors with an early indication of conditions occurring in other parts of the body, including heart conditions. If you aren’t scheduling and keeping regular dental appointments, you could miss some important symptoms that would allow your doctor to identify health concerns before they evolve into more serious problems.
How Does Poor Oral Health Affect Heart Health?
Several theories have been proposed regarding the link between oral health and heart health. One such theory is that when bacteria in the mouth proliferates and causes gum disease, that bacteria then travels to other places in the body, where it causes damage. Oral bacteria have been found within the blood vessels of patients suffering from atherosclerosis, a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that obstructs circulation.
Another theory is that the bacteria in the bloodstream attach themselves to damaged areas in the heart and cause inflammation. This can lead to conditions such as endocarditis, a life-threatening inflammation of the heart's inner lining.
Bacterial infection in the bloodstream may be especially concerning for individuals with artificial heart valves, damaged heart valves, or other heart defects.
Individuals with chronic gum disease or other gum conditions have the highest risk for heart conditions related to poor oral health. Gum disease that remains undiagnosed or untreated increases the risk of associated heart problems.
Factors that can increase the risk of gum disease include:
- Poor oral health habits
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Certain prescription medications that may reduce the production of saliva in the mouth. Saliva is necessary to wash away bacteria and plaque that can build up on teeth and gums.
- Inadequate nutrition
- Crooked teeth or other dental issues
- Poorly fitting dental appliances
- Hormonal fluctuations, such as those related to pregnancy or menopause
Symptoms of Gum Disease
Pay attention to early warning signs of gum disease, which can include:
- Gums that are red, swollen, or sore to the touch
- Gums that bleed when you eat, brush, or floss
- Gums that look as if they are pulling away from the teeth
- Bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth
- Teeth that feel loose
- Other signs of infection around the teeth and gums
Gum Disease Prevention
The best way to prevent gum disease and other oral health issues is to practice good oral hygiene and see your dentist regularly. Most adults should schedule cleanings and dental exams every six months. Individuals with chronic oral health conditions may need to visit the dentist more often. If you have cardiovascular disease, let your dentist know and provide them with a list of any medications you are taking.
Brush at least twice a day with an ADA-approved toothpaste, and floss at least once a day. Make sure dentures or any other dental appliances fit properly. If you have any concerns about the link between oral health and heart health, talk to your dentist about ways to improve your oral health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.