Floss your way to better heart health

February 04, 2016 By Robert Borkowski, M.D.

Your smile may say a lot about your mood. But what does it reveal about your heart? More than you may think. Having gum disease is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. People with gum disease are nearly twice as likely to have coronary artery disease or suffer a fatal heart attack compared to those with a healthy mouth.

What is gum disease?
Periodontal, or gum, disease is a bacterial infection. It begins when bacteria forms plaque, which hardens to tartar, on your teeth. When tartar remains, it irritates the gums, causing them to become inflamed and swollen and to bleed easily, a condition called gingivitis. If left unchecked, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, in which gums pull away from the teeth, leaving pockets where bacteria collect and break down the bone and connective tissue holding your teeth in place.

How does it hurt my heart?
Several theories explain the link between gum disease and heart disease. One theory says bacteria in the mouth enter the bloodstream and attach to fatty plaques in the arteries, contributing to clot formation. These clots may obstruct blood and oxygen flow, resulting in a heart attack or a stroke. Another idea suggests the inflammation caused by gum disease contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries. While experts have known that people with diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease) are more likely to have gum disease, recent research suggests it's a two-way street: Having gum disease makes it more difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar.

What does this mean if you're one of the estimated 80 percent of American adults with some form of gum disease? It means taking care of your mouth is an important step toward protecting your heart. Be sure to:

• Brush and floss daily.
• Eat a well-balanced diet.
• Don't smoke.
• See your dentist for professional cleanings and checkups at least twice a year.
• Seek prompt treatment for any gum disease.
• Tell your doctor about your oral health and discuss how often you need to be screened for heart disease.
If you already have diabetes or heart disease, protecting your oral health and treating gum disease is especially important for you. See a dentist or periodontist for an evaluation.

Cardiologist Robert Borkowski, M.D., is a member of the Hospital of Central Connecticut medical staff. For referrals to HHC physicians, please contact us by phone at 1.855.HHC.HERE (1.855.442.4373).