Our bodies are miraculous machines. We are built of interconnected systems, organs, veins, and more that work in tandem to keep us moving through our daily lives. When one of our parts becomes damaged or loses functionality, it can affect other surprising areas of our body we might not think are related. Our teeth and gums, for instance. They're there to help us chew food for digestion and perhaps allow us to show off a beautiful smile. That's it. Or is it? Did you know a building body of evidence in the health and science community suggests that gum health is connected to heart health? Scientists and researchers have been delving into the link between gum disease and cardiovascular health for several decades. Today, we'll explore the connection and how it can affect our heart health.
What Causes Gum Disease?The number one culprit and cause of gum disease is plaque. But there are other gum infection causes aside from plaque that you may not be as familiar with as well. Here are a few common causes behind gum disease:
- Plaque build-up. Plaque is a thick film of bacteria that forms on our gums and our teeth that daily brushing, flossing, and rinsing removes. Plaque film is a sticky, colorless, or pale yellow coating that constantly forms between and on our teeth. It begins forming roughly 4-12 hours after brushing, which is why it is vital to brush your teeth at least twice a day. The bacteria within plaque creates acids that begin to attack, then erode, our tooth enamel. The eroded enamel allows bacteria to get inside the tooth and leads to cavities and the early stages of the gum disease called gingivitis, which can cause bad breath, discolor your teeth and then lead to periodontal disease.
- Smoking or chewing tobacco interferes with the natural function of your gum tissue cells, making your mouth more vulnerable to infections like gum disease.
- Pregnancy, monthly menstrual cycles, and hormonal shifts can make your teeth and gums more vulnerable.
- Certain prescription medications. Suppose you are prescribed or take medicines that have side effects that reduce the amount of saliva you produce, leaving you with a dry mouth. A more parched mouth can encourage bacteria to spread easier.
- It can be challenging to get your daily vitamins. However, if you aren't getting enough vitamin C, this could be especially harmful to your gums.
- Family history plays a large part too. If you have a family history of gum disease, make sure to tell your dentist, as this may be putting you at a higher risk of developing a bacterial infection.
What is Gum Disease?Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is an infection of the tissues (the gums) that hold your teeth in place. It can be caused by poor dental hygiene, such as inadequate brushing technique and not flossing. However, it can be caused by different reasons, which can be found listed above. Without treatment, gum disease can worsen over time. Not only does it create an infection within your gums, but it can then begin to destroy and erode the bone that supports our teeth.
What Are the Signs of Gum Disease?Healthy gums present as firm, pale pink, and will fit snugly around your teeth. Signs and symptoms of gum disease may include things like:
- Swollen, puffy gums.
- Gums that are bright red, dusky red, or purplish.
- Gums that feel sore or tender when touched.
- When brushing or flossing, gums bleed.
- Pink-tinged toothbrush or saliva after brushing or flossing or when spitting after.
- Sudden or increase of bad breath.
- Pus between teeth and gums.
- Loose teeth, or loss of teeth.
- Painful chewing.
- New spaces between teeth.
- Gums that have pulled away receded or seem to have shrunk away from your teeth, making them appear longer.
- A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite.
How Gum Health is Linked to Heart HealthPublished in February 2021, the Forsyth Institute and Harvard University Scientist and Colleges investigated the correlation between periodontitis (gum disease) and the higher risk of experiencing major cardiovascular events.(1) Scientists studied the relationship of active gum disease over a long period and whether or not it was predictive of arterial inflammation, which can cause heart attacks, strokes, and other dangerous cardiovascular disease symptoms. For the study, researchers used both PET and CT scans on over 300 individuals to view and assess inflammation in the arteries and gums of each patient. Four years later, in their follow-up, 13 of the patients developed significant adverse cardiovascular events—and further research showed that periodontal inflammation was shown to predict cardiovascular events, even after scientists controlled all other risk factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Most importantly, they found that bone loss from prior periodontal disease was not associating with cardiovascular events. Meaning that patients who no longer had actively inflamed gums, or were actively treated their gum disease, had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease—even though they had experienced bone loss before treating the disease. While more research will be done to study this connection, Van Dyke, Vice President of Clinical and Translational Research at Forsyth, says, "This is very definitely related to people who have currently active inflammatory disease." Scientists believe that when the gums become inflamed due to periodontal disease, this activates and mobilizes cells signaling through the bone marrow that triggers the inflammation of the arteries, leading to adverse cardiac issues and events.
What You Can Do To Minimize Gum DiseaseIf you are not currently experiencing signs or symptoms of gum disease, here are some preventative actions to help keep your gums healthy and happy.
- Establish a twice-daily oral care routine. Prevention of gingivitis is all about maintaining a basic organ hygiene routine. Brush, floss, and rinse with mouthwash to prevent odor-causing bacteria from forming on your teeth.
- Most importantly: visit your dentist and make sure to have routine teeth cleaning done at least every six months. Professional cleanings can clean deeper and remove more stubborn plaque. Your dentist and dental hygienist are trained to spot the signs of gum disease likely well before you can, and the sooner you can have it treated, the easier it is to keep it at bay.
- If you do begin to experience any signs or symptoms of gum disease, it is essential to get to a dentist as soon as possible.