Eric Murray – Healthy Teeth May Mean a Healthy Heart
November 8, 2009
You may not have listened when your dentist warned you that failing to floss and brush your teeth could lead to serious gum disease. The issue seemed a lot more urgent, however, when your neighbor told you essentially the same and added that gum disease might cause you to have a heart attack or stroke.
Your neighbor’s information was based on several recent studies linking heart disease and poor dental hygiene. A long-term study published in Circulation (April 1, 2008) concluded that for men age 60 and under, chronic gum disease was associated with an increased incidence of coronary heart disease, regardless of other risk factors such as age, body mass index, smoking and diabetes.
Among the terms your dentist probably used were “plaque,” “gingivitis” and “periodontal disease.”
Plaque is a sticky substance made up of food, bacteria and bacterial waste products. Without proper brushing, plaque clings to the surfaces of teeth, particularly around the gum line.
Gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, occurs when plaque at the gum line causes a chronic irritation, sometimes causing gums to bleed when you brush your teeth.
Soon the inflammation spreads from the gingiva to the bones and ligaments underneath. And little pockets (known as periodontal pockets) open up between the teeth and under the gum that become filled with plaque, debris and bacteria.
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When you have your teeth cleaned, you may feel as if the dental hygienist is poking your gums with a sharp needle. And you’re right. He is probing these pockets to see how deep they are. The deeper the pockets, the more pain you’re likely to feel.
If your gums are sore and bleeding in the dental chair or when you’re brushing, flossing or eating, then you probably have periodontal disease. This is disease that has advanced beneath the gums to the supporting tissues underneath. Left untreated, periodontal disease can cause teeth to become loose and eventually fall out or need to be extracted.
If all that is not enough to prompt you to be more careful about brushing and flossing, then consider the evidence linking periodontal disease to atherosclerosis and the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The theory is that bacteria in the gums travel through the blood stream to all parts of the body. Laboratory studies have found some of these oral bacteria in the atherosclerotic plaques that narrow blood vessels near the heart and in other parts of the body.
Periodontal disease is common, affecting about 35 percent of Americans age 30 and over. For prevention, dentists recommend that patients schedule cleaning appointments at least twice a year, and more frequently if there is a history of gingivitis. Using a scaling tool, a dental hygienist can remove both hard and soft plaque from tooth surfaces, including roots.
Whatever the details, it’s clear that oral bacteria are responsible for negative effects a lot more serious than halitosis. The earlier you take action against them – through brushing, flossing and regular trips to the dentist – the better your chances of remaining healthy.
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