Bad Teeth and Heart Disease

Bad Teeth and Heart Disease

The first-ever study to compare levels of oral bacteria with blood vessel thickness provides the strongest evidence yet that gum disease and clogged arteries are closely connected.

"People in the study with the highest levels of specific oral bugs also had the highest levels of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)," said lead researcher Dr. Moise Desvarieux, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Dental and cardiovascular researchers have long suspected that chronic periodontal infection can also trigger or exacerbate atherosclerosis.

"Chronic infection puts a stress on our body's response system, and the way the body responds to that infection is by sending different elements through the bloodstream" explained Dr. Ronald Inge, associate executive director of the Division of Dental Practice at the American Dental Association. He explained that steady, high levels of these inflammatory compounds spur a gradual thickening of artery walls throughout the body.


“Remember, gum disease is not like a bout of the flu, which is of relatively short duration,” Inge said. “Periodontal disease is a long-term infection, and if it's not treated - if that bacteria isn't eliminated or at least reduced - it can continue to cause this slow reaction in the body that builds up over time.”

Previous studies had compared indirect markers of periodontal disease (such as loose gums or tooth loss) to atherosclerosis, and found close correlations. But Desvarieux's study of nearly 660 elderly individuals is the first to count and categorize specific populations of oral bacteria, then compare that data to ultrasound measurements of arterial thickness. In the study, the Columbia team used ultrasound to measure atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain.

The researchers found that participants with higher levels of oral bacteria also tended to have thicker, more narrowed carotid arteries. What's more, this association was only found with oral bacteria known to cause gum disease. "That's important," Desvarieux said, "because if all bugs in the mouth were related to carotid atherosclerosis, one might say 'Oh well, these people have poor oral hygiene, maybe they have poor health in general." The finding that only bacteria linked to gum disease are associated with atherosclerosis seems to rule out that explanation, he said. Inge said there are easy, simple ways to boost gum - and perhaps, arterial health.

"First, have a complete oral exam to help diagnose the disease," he said. Once a diagnosis is made, a manual deep cleaning of the gums--something specialists call "scaling and root planning" - is usually the next step. "That's usually followed by the administration of local antibiotics, to help reduce or eliminate bacteria," Inge said. At-home care is key to keeping gum infection at bay, he added. "Brush and floss your teeth twice a day, of course," he said. "But the biggest factor is to not allow food or plaque to remain in your mouth without brushing. Allowing small amounts of food to build up creates a 'fortress' for bacteria to live in. At some point, even your brushing won't be able to affect that."

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