It’s February, which means it’s Heart Health and Gum Disease Awareness Month. The reason we acknowledge these two diseases in the same month: heart health and periodontal (gum) disease are linked. Although we don’t have a definitive understanding as to exactly how one affects the other, we do know that gum disease can exacerbate existing heart conditions and increase the risk of heart disease.

Scientists theorize that bacteria or inflammation caused by gum disease may be responsible and that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease. It is possible that bacteria from the gums that travel through the system may affect important arteries. According to the American Heart Association, treatment of gum disease actually lowered blood pressure significantly in a recent study.

What is Gum Disease?

Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is an infection of the gums. This infection, if left untreated, usually leads to the breakdown of the gums in which ‘pockets’ are formed that collect food and bacteria. When the gums are infected they pull away from the teeth and leave them unsupported and vulnerable to decay and falling out. As the disease progresses, the surrounding bone begins to atrophy, which leads to further weakening of all the tissues in the mouth. Those with certain medical conditions may have increased risk of gum disease, such as people with diabetes or pregnant women.

What is Cardiovascular /Heart Disease?

Most of us know what heart disease is, but in general it refers to a broad set of conditions, including heart attack and stroke. Some conditions under the umbrella of ‘heart disease’ are associated with the narrowing or blocking of important blood vessels.

How the two are linked:

Understanding the link between gum disease and heart disease requires that we look at the suspected role of bacteria, inflammation and blood pressure.

Bacteria

Scientists suspect the link between the two diseases is due to the same bacteria. During normal chewing or brushing, this bacteria can enter the bloodstream and move to other parts of the circulatory system, contributing to the formation of cardiovascular disease. Bacteria from the mouth have been found in the fatty deposits of people with atherosclerosis.

Inflammation

Inflammation, or swelling, is the body’s natural response to infection. It is possible that as oral bacteria travel through the body, it triggers inflammation in the blood vessels, which can then lead to the formation of arterial plaque.

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a well known risk factor for heart disease. According to a November 2017 article by the American Heart Association, “Treatment for gum disease, or periodontitis, significantly lowered blood pressure among Chinese patients at risk for developing high blood pressure.”

Gum Disease:

The first step in effective treatment is diagnosis. Initial symptoms of periodontal disease are often silent—i.e.; symptoms do not actually appear until later stages. The American Academy of Periodontology lists some signs of periodontal disease as the following:

  • Red, swollen, bleeding, receding or tender gums
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  • Loose teeth or a change in the way they fit together
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  • A change in the fit of partial dentures
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  • Persistent bad breath

Just because you have one of these symptoms doesn’t automatically mean you have gum disease. Your dentist will make a formal diagnosis by reviewing symptoms.

Prevention

Here are a few lifestyle habits you can use to maintain a healthy mouth and thus reduce your risk of gum and heart disease.

  • Ask your Hygienist to show you how to correctly brush your teeth and tongue (at least twice a day) with fluoride toothpaste.
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  • Floss at least once per day.
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  • Don’t smoke or chew tobacco.
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  • Chew sugarless gum.
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  • See a dentist twice per year for regular cleanings, checkups, and treatments. During your visit, he or she will evaluate your teeth, gums, and review your medical history.
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Be mindful of early signs of gum disease, such as bleeding gums and constant bad breath and let your dentist know if you have any symptoms. Don’t let lack of home and professional care affect your oral health, especially now that research is showing it’s just too important to your heart health as well!