Did you know there is a connection between your oral health and your heart health? It’s true! Dental health is often overlooked in terms of overall health, as if your mouth exists in a vacuum or something. But recent studies have shown a strong connection between the health of your mouth and cardiovascular conditions.
For one, poor oral hygiene can lead to gum disease, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. So, be sure to take care of your teeth and gums by brushing and flossing regularly; your heart will thank you. But there’s a bit more to it than that, and considering we’re talking about the parts of your body that keep you breathing, eating and, well, living, it’s important to be aware of these connections.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a blanket term for conditions that affect the health and function of your heart. More often referred to as cardiovascular disease, this blanket term includes diseases of the blood vessels as well. The 5 most common forms of heart disease/related events are:
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Valve complications
Other types of cardiovascular diseases include coronary artery disease, congenital heart defects, infection, and heart muscle disease. Symptoms associated with these diseases include chest pain, tightness, pressure, shortness of breath, dizziness, swelling, and fatigue. Heart disease shortens lifespan and lowers quality of life.
Cardiovascular failures account for 20% of deaths in the US – seriously. Every year, about 700,000 people die from heart disease, with over 800,000 people suffering from a heart attack each year. Heart disease is a serious condition that should be treated as soon as it is identified to avoid stroke and/or other possibly fatal complications.
How is Heart Disease Connected to Your Oral Health?
Studies conducted by Harvard Medical School show a connection between poor oral health and higher rates of cardiovascular problems. This connection is mainly related to the spread of bacteria in your mouth and body.
When bacteria infect your gums, it generally causes oral issues such as gingivitis and periodontitis. Chronic infections of any kind are bad for your cardiovascular system because they divert all the body’s resources to dealing with an infection it never wins.
This same bacteria from your gum infection can also travel to blood vessels in various areas of the body via inhalation. This can cause inflammation and damage, which can result in blood clots, heart attacks, or strokes. The likelihood of suffering a form of heart disease and oral health problems at once increases immensely if there is a third contributing factor such as smoking.
Other health factors that amplify this toxic oral-cardiac relationship are:
- Blood vessel disease
- High cholesterol
- Autoimmune diseases
- Opioid use
Most heart conditions are defined by the process of atherosclerosis; where fatty and calcitic deposits build up in the arteries, narrowing and even clogging the vessels and valves around your heart. This damages the muscle and the rest of your body’s tissues via decreased oxygenation because of the lack of healthy blood flow. In addition, scientists have found mouth-specific bacteria in heart vessel plaques.
A Look at the Clinical Connection Between Your Heart & Your Mouth
There’s no shortage of studies confirming the link between your oral health and the integrity of your cardiovascular system. Here are a few select studies exploring this link:
A pair of 2021 studies on older adults in the US and UK resulted in some pretty scary implications:
- Poor oral health was associated with higher risk of all-cause mortality.
- Poor oral health was associated with higher risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
- Periodontal disease (late-stage gum disease) was associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Periodontal disease was associated with increased risk of heart disease-related death.
One 2018 study asked 682 people about their daily dental hygiene habits. They found that people with poor tooth brushing behavior – not brushing enough and/or for long enough – were 3x more likely to die from a heart-related illness or event.
A community-based study from 2013 analyzed 5900 adults and the relationship between oral and heart health. They found that increased risk for periodontal disease coincided with increased risk of heart disease.
A study from 1998 looked at the role of infection in atherosclerosis and sudden cardiac events. Results indicated that the inflammation caused by chronic infections, which would include things like gum disease, favors the development of atherosclerosis and thrombosis, and is a possible contributor to sudden heart events like stroke or heart attack.
Correlation Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Causation
The heart-mouth health connection is likely a reciprocal relationship, and nothing’s ever as simple as a 1+1=2 when it comes to your health. While there is a strong correlation between the inflammation caused by late-stage gum disease preceding sudden cardiac events, inflammation sets off a bunch of different alarm bells in the body, and it’s impossible to say the gum disease was the sole and direct cause of the event. Still, that strong correlation should be pretty sobering.
When it comes to your oral health and heart health, it is best to view it as an association, rather than causation. Based on research, there is an undeniable connection between the state of your oral health and your heart. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that poor oral health will automatically mean you will suffer from heart disease, or vice versa. Plus, there’s a lot you can do for yourself to become more resilient to both types of problems by making an effort to live a healthy lifestyle.
Being healthy takes many different factors all working together in harmony. Your teeth and oral health are just one piece of the puzzle that is the human body. Heart disease is a topic of much importance, and while correlation does not indicate causation, there are many risk factors for developing heart disease that are associated with maladies of the mouth. Keeping up with your dental health by brushing and flossing regularly, as well as visiting the dentist for cleanings and check-ups, can help to decrease some of these risks.