If you're at risk for heart disease or have it already, good oral hygiene is very important. It might seem strange, but gum disease seems to be linked with cardiovascular problems, like heart attacks and strokes.
How can you keep your gums healthy -- and maybe your heart? Get the facts here.
Gum Disease and Heart Disease
Four out of 5 people in the U.S. have gum disease, or periodontal disease. It's caused by the buildup of bacteria in the mouth. Gingivitis is a mild form. Periodontitis is more severe; it can damage the bone and cause tooth loss.
Does gum disease cause heart disease? Studies show that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease. Of course, these studies do not prove that periodontal disease is a direct cause of heart disease. It may be that people who don’t take good care of their teeth have poor lifestyle habits in general, which leads to an increased risk of heart disease.
But some experts believe that bacteria from the mouth could get into the blood and contribute to blocked arteries. These bacteria might also trigger inflammation throughout the body. When the arteries swell, they become narrower and prone to clogging.
If you're at risk for heart disease, it’s wise to play it safe. Here’s how:
Recognize the signs of gum problems
What should you watch for?
- Swollen, red, painful, or bleeding gums
- Receding gums -- which will make your teeth look longer than they used to
- Sensitive or loose teeth
- Painful chewing
- Chronic bad breath or bad taste in the mouth
If you have any of these symptoms, don't ignore them. Schedule an appointment with a dentist or periodontist to get them checked out.
The toothbrush is one of the best weapons we have against gum disease. It helps clear plaque, a sticky combination of bacteria, acids, and bits of food. But a lot of us don't brush well. We might skip some days. Our technique might be rusty. (Is it up and down? Circular? Neither?) Or in a misguided attempt at thoroughness, we scrub our teeth as if we're refinishing furniture. That can tear up your gums, worsening gum disease.
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that you brush lightly at a 45 degree angle with short, side-to-side strokes. Do it twice a day. Don't be bashful about asking your dentist or hygienist for a refresher during your next appointment. A good ADA-approved electric toothbrush can also help remove some of the guesswork.
Flossing gets rid of the bacteria and plaque between the teeth, where brushes can't reach. While it's important for gum health, flossing is one of those things that many of us know we should do, but don't. One survey found that only about half of Americans floss daily.
If you don't floss every day, it's time to join the other half. Again, ask your dentist or hygienist for tips. Be gentle -- vigorously sawing at your gums will make things worse. If you have trouble holding the floss correctly, a simple device called a floss holder might help.
Use an antiseptic mouthwash
If you have a problem with bacterial build-up in your mouth, rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash daily will help. It helps kill bacteria that cause gum disease and bad breath.
Get your teeth cleaned every six months
Regular dental cleanings and checkups are crucial for everybody -- and especially for people at risk of heart disease. Cleanings will keep plaque and tartar under control. If you do wind up developing gum disease, your dentist will catch it early.
Generally, experts recommend dental cleanings twice a year. Some people need them more often. Ask your dentist or hygienist what he or she recommends.
If you don't smoke, great. But if you do, it's time to make an attempt -- or another attempt -- at quitting. You probably know that smoking is bad for your heart. You might not know that smoking is one of the top causes of gum disease; smoking also makes existing gum disease worse. People who smoke are up to seven times more likely to have bone loss in the jaw. Smoking can even prevent treatments for gum disease from working.
Ask about antibiotics before surgery
Some people with serious heart problems need a course of antibiotics before they get any oral surgery -- for gum disease or anything else. Why? It lowers the risk of bacteria from the mouth entering the bloodstream and causing an infection of the heart called endocarditis.
This precaution only applies to people with specific conditions. If you have heart problems and need dental surgery, always ask your dentist -- or cardiologist -- beforehand.
Take care of other medical problems
Heart disease isn't the only condition linked with gum disease. Studies have found that having diabetes increases the risk of developing periodontitis, too. In turn, gum disease seems to worsen blood sugar levels in people with diabetes -- and diabetes can worsen heart disease. Oral health problems have been linked with many conditions, like respiratory disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease.
The health of your gums may be connected not just to your heart, but to your overall health. Focusing on one medical problem while letting others slide won’t work. Good general medical and dental care -- and sticking to the recommendations of your health care providers -- can have far-reaching benefits.
Tell your dentist and doctors about all the medicines and supplements you take
You might not realize it, but some of your daily medicines could contribute to gum disease. Certain drugs for diabetes, allergies, depression, pain, and high blood pressure can have an effect on your oral health. If your dentist and health care team is aware of all the medicines you take, you'll be less likely to run into problems.
Try to eat a well-balanced diet. There's no magic food that will cure gum disease, but getting enough calcium and vitamins in your diet could reduce the risk of periodontal disease. You should also make an effort to relax and lower the stress level in your life. Stress hormones like cortisol cause inflammation throughout the body -- that's bad for your gums and your heart.
Build a medical team
We once considered heart health and dental health as relatively unrelated. We know better now. The body is a single organism, after all. If you have heart disease, ideally your dentist or periodontist should work directly with your cardiologist. Think of them as members of your medical team. If you can collaborate with them and develop a treatment plan, you're bound to be healthier -- in more ways than you might expect.