The Link Between Gum Disease and Heart Attacks

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

Studies have found the incidence of heart disease is about twice as high in people with periodontal (gum) disease and that the most common strain of bacteria in dental plaque may cause blood clots. When blood clots escape into the bloodstream, there is a relation to increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and other heart illnesses. The link between heart disease and gum disease has been shown to be at least as strong as the other risk factors for heart disease: cholesterol, body weight and smoking.

People with periodontal disease (over one half the adult population) have an infection that causes chronic inflammation of the gums. It is a path for these bacteria to enter the bloodstream. It is believed that these oral bacteria attach to fatty plaques in the coronary arteries (heart blood vessels) and contribute to clot formation. Coronary artery disease is characterized by a thickening of the walls of the arteries due to the buildup of fatty proteins. Blood clots can obstruct normal blood flow, restricting the amount of nutrients and oxygen required for the heart to function properly. This may lead to heart attacks.

Periodontal disease is an infection that destroys the gum surrounding your teeth and the supporting bone that holds your teeth in place. Unlike most diseases that give us early warning signs, gum disease progresses silently, often without pain. It may develop slowly or progress quite rapidly. More than half of all people over 18 have at least the early stages of periodontal disease. After the age of 35, three out of four people are affected to some degree.

Obvious signs of gum disease are bleeding when brushing and flossing, gums that are red, swollen or tender, gums that are pulled away from teeth, pus, loose or separating teeth, changes in your bite or the fit of partial dentures and persistent bad breath. However, even healthy looking teeth may have gum disease. Only your dentist or hygienist can tell with a simple exam. Your dental team can help you better understand periodontal disease and how you can prevent it. They will design a homecare regimen for your specific needs.

While much more research is needed before it is known exactly how periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease are related, what’s exciting is that periodontal disease is both preventable and treatable. That could mean that preventing strokes and heart attacks will someday be as simple as practicing good oral hygiene and treating oral infections promptly.

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