Got Gum Trouble? Your Heart Might Be Next

man in dentist office holding plastic teeth( There’s mounting evidence that brushing, flossing and regular dental checkups
may be at the heart of good cardiovascular health.

“People who have chronic infections — and gum disease is one of the major
chronic infections — are at increased risk later in life for atherosclerosis
[hardening of the arteries] and coronary heart disease,” said American Heart
Association spokesman Dr. Richard Stein, who is also director of preventive
cardiology at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City.

Stein said he regularly counsels patients worried about their risk for heart
attack or stroke to incorporate good periodontal care in their preventive
strategies, just as they would include exercise, healthy diets and appropriate

The reason: Chronic periodontal disease — which is caused by a number of
oral bacteria — appears to set off an inflammatory process that exacerbates and
contributes to the build-up of cholesterol-rich plaque on artery walls.

“The presence of a chronic infection in the mouth is very similar to a
chronic infection anywhere else in the body, in that it puts stress on our
body’s response system,” explained Dr. Ronald Inge, associate executive director
of the division of dental practice at the American Dental Association in
Chicago. “The way the body responds [to that stress] is by sending different
elements through the bloodstream, and these elements create the plaque.”

In fact, one study published earlier this year in the journal
Circulation found that patients with high levels of gum disease bacteria
were also at high risk for atherosclerosis.

“This demonstrates that the [health of] the mouth isn’t isolated from the
rest of the body,” Inge said.

According to Stein, experts have known about the periodontal-cardiovascular
link for about a decade. “It’s become a bigger problem in general because we’re
having fewer cavities due to fluoride and we’re living longer,” he said. “So,
more and more, what’s making us lose our teeth is periodontal disease.”

But there’s lots you can do to keep bacteria from setting up house in your
gums. Some tips, according to Inge:

  • Get checked. A thorough oral exam will allow a dentist to detect and
    diagnosis gum disease, gauge its severity, and order appropriate treatment.
    Treatments include bacterial removal via scaling and root-planing, and the use
    of antibiotics.
  • Brush and floss regularly. The more frequently food is kept away from
    teeth, the better, since regular cleaning robs oral bacteria of the nutrients
    they crave.
  • Don’t snack. Every snack delivers a fresh meal to germs that are hard
    at work destroying teeth and gums. If snacking is unavoidable, Inge recommends
    less-sticky foods that won’t adhere to tooth structure.

Stein noted that there’s one group of adults that may not have to
worry about periodontal troubles: those with dentures. “In order to have an
infection of your gums, you need to have teeth,” he said.

Most Americans would rather keep their teeth, however — and keep their
hearts and arteries healthy. According to Stein, good oral health care may help
accomplish both goals.

“Taking care of your teeth is part of general good health and quality of
life,” he said, “and it may also have a protective role for your heart.”

More information

For more on preventing periodontal disease, visit the American Dental

SOURCES: Richard Stein, M.D., spokesman, American Heart Association,
and director, preventive cardiology, Beth Israel Medical Center, and professor,
clinical cardiology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, both in New York City;
Ronald Inge, D.D.S., associate executive director, Division of Dental Practice,
American Dental Association, Chicago; Feb. 8, 2005, Circulation

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