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Healthy Teeth, Healthy Heart?

Though the link between dental health and heart health is not completely clear, experts say it’s important to take care of both.
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WebMD Feature

Paying attention to your dental hygiene and health -- especially your gums -- may pay you back with more than a gleaming, healthy smile and manageable dental bills. It may keep your heart healthy too.

However, experts emphasize that the keyword is may. Cardiologists and periodontists, the dentists who treat gum disease, have long debated the link between dental health and heart disease. But the issue still isn't completely resolved, says Robert Bonow, MD, past president of the American Heart Association and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

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"It isn't clear whether gum disease actually has a direct link to heart disease," Bonow says. ''There are threads of evidence, but they’re not yet tied together. If it's true that people with poor oral health have more heart attacks, it doesn't mean the poor oral health leads to them. People with good oral hygiene may just be taking better care of themselves." In other words, people who floss and brush their teeth may also exercise regularly and follow other heart-healthy habits.

Gum Disease and Heart Disease: How Could They Be Linked?

Experts do agree that there are plausible reasons why dental health and heart health may be intertwined. For example, inflammation is a common problem in both diseases, Bonow says. Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, ''has a strong component of inflammation. Much of the progression of plaque [building up in the arteries] is actually an inflammatory process."

Gum disease also has an inflammation component, says Sam Low, DDS, associate dean at the University of Florida College of Dentistry in Gainesville, and president of the American Academy of Periodontology. Gingivitis, the beginning stages of gum disease, occurs when gums become inflamed and bacteria overtake the mouth.

What Research Shows About Gum Disease and the Heart

Experts in periodontology and cardiology recently reviewed more than 120 published medical studies, position papers, and other data on the heart and dental health link. They developed a consensus report, published simultaneously in the Journal ofPeriodontology and the American Journal of Cardiology.

The aim of the paper was to give cardiologists, periodontists, and other health professionals a better understanding of the links between gum disease and heart disease. But much of the information is helpful to consumers, too. The report makes these points:

  • A review of several published studies finds that gum disease is, by itself, a risk factor for coronary artery disease.
  • Analysis of the large National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that gum disease is an important risk factor for diseases of the blood vessels and the arteries that supply the brain, especially strokes involving insufficient blood or oxygen to the brain. Data from another study of more than 50,000 people found that those with fewer teeth and more gum disease had a higher risk of stroke. However, other studies have uncovered no association between gum disease and stroke.
  • Other research found a direct link between clogged arteries in the legs and gum disease.

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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