Can Your Mouth and Gum Disease Really Cause Heart Problems?
There has been a lot of talk about an association between oral and cardiac health, but is there really a direct link? Here’s what we know.
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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Cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD, says research supporting this suspected link is circumstantial. But paying attention to the oral health — with regular brushing and flossing — is still an important part of staying healthy.
“We see a great deal of overlap, but no research is strong enough to link gum disease and cardiac disease, heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Jellis says. “But, we know that people who brush and floss regularly have better overall health with less gum disease and less periodontal inflammation.”
Coronary artery disease is also linked to systemic inflammation, but there’s no specific relation to oral inflammation, she says.
Dr. Jellis says poor oral and cardiac health often occur together, especially if you smoke, have diabetes, are obese or have high blood pressure.
For example, the link between smoking and heart disease is well known. Smokers are also 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 thrush (a yeast infection in the mouth and throat). In fact, those who have diabetes who also smoke are 20 times more likely to have thrush or periodontal disease.
A healthy diet improves heart function, and those who avoid high-sugar foods have stronger teeth and gums, she says.
To make poor oral or cardiac health less likely, you can take these steps to reduce risk factors:
To protect your teeth, get regular checkups with your dentist for good preventive care. 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, Dr. Jellis says.
Controlling any inflammation is necessary for good health even if there’s no proof of a direct link.
“Oral and heart disease are both linked with inflammation, and that’s always created the suspicion that there is a link between the two,” she says. “While that’s not borne out by research, investigations are still ongoing to see if there’s something there.”
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While experts don’t generally recommend taking antibiotics before dental work for people with 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 one group: 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, and take antibiotics before surgeries that might cause bleeding in case any mouth-dwelling bacteria enter the bloodstream, she says.
Brush and floss regularly, as well. And, if you take a blood thinner, alert your dentist and confirm with your cardiologist that it’s OK to stop taking it for a dental procedure.
“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,” Dr. Jellis says. “The consequences of not doing so could be significant.”