Recently, dentists, researchers, and doctors have begun to examine the link between oral health and overall health. One area they’ve focused on is the relationship between gum disease and heart disease.
Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is inflammation of the gums. It can lead to the breakdown of the gums, teeth, and bone tissues that hold them in place. Heart disease refers to a broad set of conditions, including heart attack and stroke. Heart disease is caused by the narrowing or blockage of important blood vessels.
Keep reading to learn more about how these two conditions are related and what you can do to reduce your risk.
What does the research say?
Some recent research studies show an association between gum disease and heart disease. In one study from 2014, researchers looked at people who had both gum disease and heart disease. They discovered that people who had received adequate care for their gum disease had cardiovascular care costs that were 10 to 40 percent lower than people who didn’t get proper oral care. These findings support the idea that gum health affects heart health.
Authors of a recent review article evaluated several studies and also concluded that a link exists between the two conditions. They found that gum disease increases a person’s risk of heart disease by about 20 percent. They further concluded that more high-quality research is needed.
Given this evidence, the American Dental Association and American Heart Association have acknowledged the relationship between gum disease and heart disease. Gum disease may increase the risk of heart disease because inflammation in the gums and bacteria may eventually lead to narrowing of important arteries.
Gum diseases and other diseases
Gum disease and oral health may be related to other conditions, as well, such as:
- Osteoporosis: Some research suggests that lower bone density leads to bone loss in the jaw. This may eventually lead to tooth loss due to a weaker underlying bone.
- Respiratory disease: Bacteria in the mouth can move to the lungs and cause infections such as pneumonia. This is more common for people with periodontal disease.
- Cancer: Some research suggests that gum disease may increase the risk of certain forms of cancer, such as kidney, pancreatic, and blood cancers. More research is needed in this area.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Early research shows an association between RA and gum disease. However, more research is needed.
There are also some conditions that may increase your risk of developing gum disease. Research indicates that people with diabetes are at increased risk of developing gum disease. This is likely due to increased inflammation and greater risk of infections in general. The risk lowers if you manage your diabetes.
Pregnant women are also at increased risk of gum disease due to hormonal changes and increased blood flow.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Gum disease symptoms
Regular visits to your dentist can help with early diagnosis and treatment of gum disease. You should also let your dentist know if you have any symptoms of gum disease, including:
- persistent bad breath
- swollen, red gums
- tender gums that bleed easily
- pain with chewing
- highly sensitive teeth
- receding gums or sunken teeth
- loose teeth or changes in bite
Just because you have one or several of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have gum disease. A dentist will make a formal diagnosis by reviewing the severity and duration of your symptoms. They will also evaluate your teeth and review your medical history. During your visit, they may:
- measure your gums with a tiny ruler to check pocket depth
- evaluate your gums for signs of inflammation and plaque buildup
- take X-rays of underlying jaw bone to look for bone loss
- examine sensitive teeth for receding gums
Heart disease symptoms
If your doctor suspects heart disease, they will make a diagnosis based on your medical history, the severity and duration of your symptoms, and the results of a physical examination. The following are common symptoms of heart disease:
- chest pain, also known as angina, resulting from your heart not getting enough oxygen
- arrhythmia, also known as irregular heart beat
- shortness of breath
- unexpected fatigue
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- sudden confusion or impaired thinking
- excess buildup of fluid, known as edema
- heart attack
The doctor will also evaluate your blood and examine risk factors for heart disease, such as family history and body weight. They can confirm a diagnosis with the following tests:
- EKG to record the heart’s electrical activity
- chest X-ray to visualize the heart and other organs in the chest
- blood tests to evaluate levels of proteins, lipids, and glucose
- stress test to document abnormal changes in your heart beat and breathing during exercise
What’s the outlook?
Research shows some connection between gum disease and heart disease. Bacteria buildup and inflammation in the oral cavity eventually leads to narrowing and blockage of blood vessels. However, more research is needed to better understand the connection.
There are many healthy lifestyle habits you can use to maintain good oral hygiene and reduce your risk of gum and heart diseases.
- Brush your teeth and tongue at least twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist to demonstrate the correct technique for brushing.
- Floss between your teeth and gums at least once per day.
- Use mouthwash regularly.
- Only use teeth cleaning products that have the American Dentist Association’s seal of approval.
- Refrain from smoking or chewing tobacco.
- Drink water that contains fluoride.
- Eat a diet high in vegetables, high-fiber foods, low-sugar fruits, and vegetable-based proteins.
- Maintain healthy levels of blood sugar, especially if you have diabetes.
- See a dentist twice per year for regular cleanings and checkups.
- Be mindful of early signs of gum disease, such as bleeding gums and constant bad breath. Let your dentist know if you have any of these symptoms.
Q&A: Gum disease
Can I reverse the damage caused by gum disease?
Yes, gum disease can still be reversed if you are in the gingivitis stage of the disease, but not from the advanced form of the disease. To improve your gum health, brush your teeth twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste. Floss regularly using string floss, a water flosser, or special dental brushes and picks. Use mouth rinses, and have regular dental checkups and professional cleanings.
If gum disease is in the more advanced form, called periodontitis, you can take measures to control it. Scaling and root planning (deep cleaning), reduction of gum pockets (surgical treatment), and medication may be necessary.Christine Frank, DDSAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.