Cardiologists and periodontists, the dentists who treat gum disease, have long debated the link between poor dental health and heart disease. After years of research and hundreds of studies, the connection is still not completely certain.
Robert Bonow, MD, past president of the American Heart Association and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine says, “It isn’t clear whether gum disease actually has a direct link to heart disease… People with good oral hygiene may just be taking better care of themselves.” In other words, people who prioritize their oral health might also be more likely to exercise regularly and follow other heart-healthy habits.
Although there are no clear cut answers, experts do agree that there is a solid foundation to the theory that paying attention to your dental health, especially your gums, may keep your smile and your heart healthy.
For example, inflammation is a common problem in both heart and dental diseases. Atherosclerosis, or the hardening of arteries in your heart, as Bonow says, ‘‘Has a strong component of inflammation.” Further, according to Sam Low, DDS and president of the American Academy of Periodontology, gum disease also has an inflammation factor.
Gingivitis occurs when bacteria take over the mouth and gums swell, and if left untreated may eventually lead to these more serious gum diseases. When people develop gum disease, their levels of a protein that increases during whole-body inflammation, called C-reactive protein (CRP), also rises. Interestingly, as our team at Cardiac Monitoring Service knows well, CRP levels are also utilized by cardiologists to assess the risk of heart attack.
After recently reviewing more than 120 published medical studies, experts in periodontology and cardiology developed a consensus report that was published in both the Journal of Periodontology and the American Journal of Cardiology.
In the report, a review of several published studies found that gum disease is a risk factor for coronary artery disease, and other research also found a direct link between clogged arteries in the legs and gum disease. Additionally, analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that gum disease is an important risk factor for diseases of the blood vessels and arteries that supply the brain.
Further, data from another study of more than 50,000 people found that those with fewer teeth and higher instances of gum disease had an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks. Finally, the report recommended that dentists should inform patients with moderate to severe gum disease that they may also have an increased risk for heart and blood vessel problems.
Although the report was a consensus of sorts, experts say that it’s important to remember that the connection is far from definitive. Even our Cardiac Monitoring Service staff can tell you that taking care of either heart health or dental hygiene isn’t going to prevent issues with the other.
Overall, until a conclusive link between heart and dental diseases is discovered, patients should discuss their concerns with either their periodontal or cardiac health with their physicians, and focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle while avoiding risk factors for both potential issues.