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The Oral Health-Heart Connection: Periodontal Disease and Heart Disease continued...

How does the inflammation in your mouth affect your heart and blood vessels? Every time you brush or floss, bacteria get released into the blood stream, Karimbux says. According to one theory, bacteria in the blood stream can end up in specific areas, such as where plaque begins to form in the arteries. Once there, bacteria may add to clot formation.

Another theory involves the body's response to inflammation. When gums are inflamed, the body releases certain chemicals into the bloodstream that help fight infection. Scientists think that these chemicals circulate in the blood, and may contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries.

The next question researchers are starting to answer is whether treating periodontal disease will lower the risk for heart disease and other conditions, says Karimbux. He cites a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at 120 patients with severe periodontal disease. Six months after receiving treatment, researchers found lower levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, which is a sign of inflammation. They also found an improvement in blood flow.

Although you have to take into account that it's not a large number of people, Karimbux says, this and other studies are finding that you can lower the amount of inflammation distant from the mouth by treating periodontal disease.

Diabetes and Gum Disease: A Two-Way Street

The connection between oral health and diabetes can be described as a two-way street, according to Kinane. "Diabetes has a major impact on all parts of the body, including the oral cavity." Having diabetes increases the risk for infection in the body, which can lead to periodontal disease. "At the same time," Kinane says, "having periodontal disease increases the amount of inflammation your body is coping with." And that actually worsens diabetes, making it harder to keep blood sugar under control.

Studies show that people with diabetes are more likely to develop periodontal disease, especially if their diabetes is not well controlled. So can treating gum disease make it easier to manage diabetes? A 2010 review in Evidence Based Dentistry found that people with diabetes who were treated for periodontal disease could more easily control their diabetes.

"People with diabetes have to brush scrupulously and keep everything totally clean," says Kinane. Anything a person with diabetes can do to reduce inflammation in the body will make it easier to manage the disease, he adds.

Periodontal Disease Can Lead to Preterm Labor

Most pregnant women understand that smoking, drinking, and certain health conditions such as high blood pressure increase the risk for preterm labor, or being born early. But keeping your teeth and gums healthy also may help protect the health of your unborn baby. Just being pregnant increases the risk for gum disease because of hormonal changes. And several studies have shown that gum disease increases the risk for low birth weight and preterm labor. A 2011 review in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare found that treating periodontal disease may lower the risk for low-birth-weight babies and preterm labor. So if you have gum disease and you are pregnant, be sure to see your dentist.

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