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Experts: No Proof Gum Disease Causes Heart Disease

New Statement by the American Heart Association Stirs Controversy
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 18, 2012 -- Contrary to what had been "accepted" thinking by many, there is no conclusive evidence that gum disease causes heart attacks and strokes, or that treating gum disease will improve heart disease, according to a new scientific statement by the American Heart Association.

Gum disease is a major reason that adults lose their teeth. And in recent years, a growing number of studies have suggested that gum disease may pose other dangers to the body, too.

One theory holds that inflammation and infection that starts in the mouth can spread, causing more widespread trouble. Research has tied gum disease to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, stillbirths, and even Alzheimer's disease.

And a handful of studies, including one published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine, have even shown that aggressively treating gum disease may improve some indicators of blood vessel function.

But after reviewing more than 60 years of research on heart and gum disease, experts say that although the two problems are clearly related, it is unlikely that gum disease causes heart disease.

Statement Aims to Clear up Confusion

The American Heart Association's statement comes on the heels of a campaign by the Institute for Advanced Laser Dentistry to launch a national "Gum Disease Awareness Week."

"Oral health has a major impact on overall health, and mounting university research has linked gum disease to serious health concerns, including heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, and even stillbirths," Robert H. Gregg, DDS, president of the IALD, says in an April 11 news release.

The organization promotes laser treatment of gum disease, which it says on a Facebook page, "can hurt more than just smiles."

Researchers say statements like that may be jumping ahead of science, however.

"It was clear to everybody that there was a lot of confusion out there; a lot of conflicting scientific evidence. The public and the profession, both medicine and dentistry, had come to believe on the basis of the information that was out there that there was a direct connection between periodontal disease and [heart] disease," says researcher Peter B. Lockhart, DDS, chairman of the department of oral medicine at Carolinas Health Care System in Charlotte, N.C.

"There's no scientific evidence at this point that there's a direct connection -- that either gum disease causes atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] or strokes and heart attacks, or that there's any evidence at this point that by treating periodontal disease that you'll improve your [heart health] situation," Lockhart says.

Lockhart says the statement is meant to clarify what is known about the link between oral health and heart disease, and to encourage people to focus on more established heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.

The review doesn't mean that it's OK not to take care of your gums or that gum disease doesn't need treatment, he says.

"Having infected gums on a daily basis can't be healthy. It just, at this point, hasn't been shown to cause disease [throughout the body]," Lockhart says.

"I wouldn't want people distracted nor needlessly upset by the fact that if they couldn't get dental care or it wasn't working that it was going to have a negative impact on their overall cardiovascular situation," he says.

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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