Does a healthy mouth equal a healthy heart? More and more, the research says "yes." Doctors have been talking about the potential link for nearly two decades and with good reason. Heart disease is a serious problem around the world. So is poor oral health. Could better brushing and flossing give you a healthier heart? And could dentists take a peek inside your mouth and see if you're at risk for heart disease?
Doctors call it the "Hollywood heart attack": a middle-aged man breaks into a cold sweat, grimaces, and clutches his chest-just like in the movies. Trouble is, in real life, heart attack symptoms don't always announce themselves so dramatically. More often they are insidious and puzzling, such as unexplained fatigue or abdominal discomfort, and many people wait for hours before seeking help.
Big mistake, doctors tell WebMD. The ability to quickly spot signs of heart attack, angina, and stroke can...
"For the most part, the data is circumstantial. It's hard to prove cause and effect," says Thomas Boyden, Jr., MD. He's the medical director of preventive cardiology at Spectrum Health Medical Group Cardiovascular Services in Grand Rapids, MI. "However, I think the data is pretty strong and there is definitely a link."
Scott Merritt, DMD, founder and partner of Bridgemill Dentistry in Canton, GA, agrees. "I absolutely believe there is a strong correlation between oral disease and heart function."
So, What's the Link?
What's the link? In a word, inflammation, or swelling. Scientists know that it leads to hardened arteries, also called atherosclerosis. That's a condition that makes it hard for blood to flow to your heart. It puts you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.
Inflammation is also a sure sign of gum disease. Sore, swollen gums are the main symptom. There are two main types: gingivitis, which causes red, painful, tender gums, and periodontitis, which leads to infected pockets of germy pus. That's the type that raises the worry for heart problems. It allows bacteria and other toxins to spread below the gum line.
"Your gums are very vascular, meaning they're full of blood vessels. And, your mouth is full of bacteria. If you disrupt the gum layer even a little bit, you're going to get bacteria in your bloodstream, which can go anywhere and trigger inflammation throughout the body," Boyden says. "Inflammation is one of the main things that cause damage to blood vessels, including those of the heart."
Studies show that the bacteria found in periodontal disease -- including Streptococcus sanguis, which plays a role in strokes-- spreads to the heart. "The two appear to go hand-in-hand," Merritt Says. "In the absence of gum disease, there is significantly less of these bacteria in the heart."