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Warning: Failure to Floss May Lead to Death

Okay, that may be a little extreme. However, there is evidence that having periodontal disease may increase your risk of heart disease by up to 100%. There are, as often happens in medical professions, conflicting studies and conflicting theories on this matter; but the evidence does, at a minimum, suggest a link, and possibly a very important one, between periodontal disease and heart disease.

It is likely that you have heard this news before as it has been a hot topic on and off for a couple of years now. But, how could having oral problems possibly increase your risk of having heart problems?

Let’s first discuss periodontal disease to get a better understanding of what it is that may actually be causing this link. The word periodontal literally means “around the tooth.” Periodontal disease, stated simply, is gum disease. It is a chronic bacterial infection that affects the gums and the bones supporting the teeth, and if left untreated, can lead to tooth decay and tooth loss. Periodontal disease includes gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), periodontitis (a more advanced form of gingivitis that can cause shrinkage of the gums and loosening of the teeth), and periocoronitis – coro meaning crown (inflammation and infection of the gums around the molars or crowns of erupting teeth.) Periocoronitis is the strongest known oral predictor of possible heart disease, followed by tooth decay and gingivitis.

Symptoms of periodontal disease include foul breath, bleeding gums, sensitive gums, and recessed gums. Fortunately, there are easy ways to prevent periodontal disease. Keep your mouth clean. This will make it more difficult for oral bacteria to build up in your mouth, leading to plaque build-up and cavities. Practice good brushing habits by brushing and flossing twice a day. See your dentist every six months for a cleaning and every four months if you have braces. If you develop symptoms of gum disease, don’t put off seeing your dentist because you are afraid of discomfort or because you are embarrassed about your oral health. There are plenty of aids to make you feel at ease in the dentist’s office, and your dentist sees gum disease everyday. In fact, the majority of the population has some degree of gingivitis, so it’s a very common problem, and one that can be very easy to solve.

There are three theories about how periodontal disease can lead to heart disease. The first is that the bacterial organisms that cause periodontal disease enter the blood stream through the gums and travel to infect the heart. This is highly unlikely and there is almost no evidence to support this. The second theory is that bacteria from the mouth enter the blood stream from the gums and stick to the fatty plaques in the bloodstream. Those fatty plaques (a different kind of plaque than oral plaque) build up in the arteries, attributing to blockages. This may be true as dental bacteria have been found in blocked arteries, but it’s not the most supported or the most likely reason that there is a link.
The most likely reason is that the body naturally responds to bacteria and infection by swelling and inflammation. When the oral bacteria get into the blood stream, the blood cells swell in response to that bacteria. When those cells swell, the artery gets narrower and can clot, also known as arterio schlerosis or hardening of the arteries.

So, does periodontal disease cause heart attacks? As far as we know, not directly. But, it may be worth getting a cardiac check-up if you have periodontal disease, since it can be an early indicator of cardiovascular problems. You often can’t feel symptoms of heart disease, like your cholesterol rising or your arteries hardening. But you can feel painful, bleeding gums.