There may be a simple weapon against heart disease: a toothbrush.
Studies have found a relationship between heart and gum disease. In fact, people with gum disease are twice as likely to have heart disease. So a toothbrush and better dental care may be just what’s needed to help protect against heart attacks, strokes and other heart conditions.
The research linking gum and heart disease dates back more than 20 years, said Aventura periodontist David Genet. Now, researchers are looking to find closer links and prove a causal relationship.
“We know there’s a relationship between the two,” Genet said. “If we can refine that information and really understand it well, we can actually protect those people’s hearts and people’s mouths at the same time.”
Many studies have been done on the subject, Genet said. One study showed that people with higher blood levels of certain disease-causing bacteria in their mouths were more likely to have atherosclerosis in the carotid artery in the neck, which is when plaque builds up inside that artery and prevents blood from flowing to the brain. This can lead to a stroke.
“The assumption is clear that if you decrease the bacterial load, if you decrease the bacteria in someone’s mouth,” Genet said, “then the likelihood is that it won’t find its way through the body and into the heart artery.”
Researchers also found that inflammatory mechanisms link periodontal diseases to cardiovascular diseases. So periodontitis, or gum disease, could contribute to levels of inflammatory markers which are related to an increase risk in cardiovascular disease, Genet said.
And it has been shown that problems in the mouth including gum disease, cavities and missing teeth are as good at predicting heart disease as cholesterol levels.
Aventura cardiologist David Korn said when people have gum disease, plaques with bacteria form in the gums. When the bacteria is released, it causes a release of certain substances in the blood stream which can result in problems in the walls of the heart. The problems can include the formation of plaque in the arteries of the heart, he said.
But even though the studies show the relationship exists, they don’t yet provide a causal effect.
And that takes time, Genet said.
Still, he suggested taking the findings seriously. He said periodontal health is clearly linked to heart disease and patients with one are likely to have the other. If people want to keep their teeth forever, Genet said they should see a periodontist.
Aventura cardiologist Leonard Pianko said people often don’t don’t take care of their dental problems because they don’t realize how important it is.
“It sounds like an unrelated problem,” he said, “the teeth and the heart, but they’re actually very related.”
As people age, a lot of changes take place with their teeth, Pianko said. But that isn’t isolated to the mouth, he said.
“Unfortunately, with a lot of people,” he said, “they don’t go to the dentist unless there’s a problem.”
And at that point, it could be too late.
Genet said that when people have a lot of different medical issues that they aren’t managing, gaining control over their mouths often leads them to pursue better general health.
“I think there’s also a net effect of a cleaner, and healthier functioning mouth,” he said.
And his overall suggestion is simple: a toothbrush and good dental care. He said keeping your teeth in good shape can help to avoid heart disease.
He added that the goal of the research being done now is to understand the direct relationship between gum and heart disease to impact both diseases at once.
Pianko said just by going to the dentist at least once a year to get a cleaning and taking care of problems with the teeth, plaque buildup and heart diseases can be avoided.
“The bloodstream is like a big highway. ... When inflammation or infection gets into the bloodstream, it can seed to many different areas,” he said. “It’s really a preventable problem.”