If your doctor were to say your cholesterol levels were too high and you had double the chance developing heart disease, would you do something about it? Most people would. They may consult a nutritionist, start an exercise regimen or simply modify their diet by eliminating cheese or switching to egg whites.
Now suppose you discovered the incidence of heart disease was twice as high in people with periodontal disease, and you were one of the millions of Americans who suffered from this condition. Would you set up an appointment with your dentist?
According to some studies, periodontal disease (which affects the bone and tissue surrounding your teeth) has proven to be a stronger risk factor than any of the other conditions usually linked to heart disease (e.g., hypertension, high cholesterol, age and gender).
“We’ve known for some time that oral bacteria can infect damaged hearts and certain oral bacteria can cause platelets to aggregate,” according to researcher Dr. Robert Genico. “Just recently, these findings emerged as a possible explanation of how and why bacteria that cause periodontal disease can also increase the risk of heart disease.”
Researchers at Harvard’s School of Dental Medicine and presenters at the 150th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science also concluded that the bacteria found in plaque (the primary etiological factor causing periodontal disease) is linked to coronary disease.
People with periodontal disease are up to two times as likely to suffer a fatal heart attack and nearly three times more likely to suffer a stroke as those individuals without this disease.
How does this happen ?
It is speculated that oral bacteria, the most common form being streptococci, enters the bloodstream through small ulcers in the gum tissue.
The bacteria cause the platelets in the bloodstream to aggregate and form blood clots (thrombi) which can block blood vessels and infect heart valves.
How do I know if I have periodontal disease ?
Periodontal disease is often painless and develops slowly and progressively. Sometimes it may develop quite rapidly. Unless you see your dentist for regular checkups, you may not realize you have periodontal disease until you gums and bone have been severely damaged to the point of tooth loss.
Periodontal disease can occur at any age. In fact, more than half of all people over age 18 show signs of at least the early stages of some type of periodontal disease.
Gingivitis is the earliest stage of periodontal disease and affects only the gum tissue. At this stage, it is reversible. If not treated, it could lead to periodontitis, potentially damaging bone and other supporting structures. Such damage can result in loosened teeth.
What can I do to prevent periodontal disease?
Keep your teeth clean by brushing with fluoridated toothpaste at least twice daily. Use dental floss and mouth rinse.
Eat a balanced diet for good general health to secure the proper amount of nutrients to build your mouth’s resistance to the infection caused by bacterial plaque.
Visit your dentist at least every six months for a checkup, making sure that a thorough periodontal exam is performed.
Avoid other risk factors such as smoking and chewing tobacco, both of which have a detrimental effect on the severity of periodontal disease. Systemic diseases such as AIDS or diabetes can lower the oral tissue’s resistance to infection, making periodontal disease more severe.
Review your medical history with your dentist. Many of the medications or therapeutic drugs that you may be taking can decrease your salivary flow and adversely affect your teeth and gums.
When you consider the effects of gum disease, think not only in terms of how it affects your teeth, but also how it could possibly lead to a serious and perhaps fatal infection from the release of bacteria into your bloodstream. Prevention is the key to success. Teeth are intended to last you a lifetime, and a healthy heart and body should help improve your overall quality of life.