Many people believe that healthy teeth and gums go hand-in-hand with a healthy heart, but is there really a direct link?
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Research supporting this suspected link is circumstantial, but paying attention to oral health — with regular brushing and flossing — is still an important part of staying healthy.
“We see a great deal of overlap between those with gum disease, and those who have a history of cardiac disease, heart attack or stroke,” says cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD. “We know that people who brush and floss regularly have better overall health, along with less gum disease and periodontal inflammation.”
Poor oral and cardiac health often occur together, especially if you smoke, have diabetes, have obesity or high blood pressure.
The link between smoking and heart disease is well known. Smokers are more likely to practice poor oral hygiene and to have oral cancers, periodontitis and gingivitis. Diabetes can also lead to dry mouth, poorly healing gums and oral thrush, which is a yeast infection in the mouth and throat. In fact, those who have diabetes and also smoke are 20 times more likely to have oral thrush or periodontal disease.
According to a study done in the AHA journal Hypertension, gum disease could worsen blood pressure and can interfere with medications used to treat hypertension.
“A healthy diet improves heart function, says Dr. Jellis. “Those who avoid high sugar foods also tend to have have healthier teeth and gums.”
Prevention is key. To make cardiac and mouth issues less likely, take these steps to reduce risk factors:
Not only do these healthy lifestyle changes help prevent cardiac disease, but they also go a long way in improving cholesterol and blood pressure, too.
Get regular checkups with your dentist for good preventive care and to help protect your teeth. Dental care can help you avoid or limit oral health problems, while regular visits to your doctor can help you keep track of any cardiovascular risks. Controlling any inflammation is necessary for good health even if there’s no proof of a direct link.
“Oral and heart disease can both be linked to chronic inflammation, so that’s always created the suspicion that there is a link between the two,” says Dr. Jellis. “While research in this area is still evolving, it makes sense to be proactive about optimizing both heart and mouth care.”
While experts don’t generally recommend taking antibiotics before dental work for people with simple heart valve disease who have never had valve surgery, it remains always important for these people to brush and floss regularly for good oral hygiene.
A direct link between oral and heart health does exist for those who have certain pre-existing cardiac conditions that make them prone to infective endocarditis, an infection that strikes heart valves or other heart structures. This group particularly includes those who have some congenital heart defects and artificial heart valves.
If you fall into one of these groups, tell your dentist before any procedures. Also talk to your doctor about taking antibiotics before surgeries that might cause bacteria enter the bloodstream.
If you take a blood thinner, also alert your dentist and confirm with your cardiologist that it’s OK to stop taking it if required for dental procedures.
“The key is communication between the dentist and the cardiologist to see if there’s any question about the safety of doing any dental procedures,” says Dr. Jellis. “The consequences of not doing so could be significant.”