If you thought maintaining your oral health was just about keeping a beautiful smile, think again. Aesthetics are important, but ensuring you take good care of your teeth and gums can have a much greater impact on the body than making sure you look your best in photographs.
Research has shown a link between periodontitis, or gum disease, and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. In fact, your oral health and your heart health are much more closely linked than it might seem. If the early signs of gum disease are not treated, the gums can become chronically inflamed. Chronic inflammation has been shown to contribute to the build-up of plaque in the arteries that can cause blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Researchers have even found oral bacteria inside the arterial plaque, strengthening this link.
Your body is a series of interconnected systems. If there’s a problem in one area, its effects can also be felt elsewhere. Taking care of your teeth isn’t only about what’s in your mouth. Treating gum disease at the earliest signs can prevent serious problems like coronary heart disease.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that patients with periodontitis are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease because there’s overlap between the risk factors. Smoking and vaping, for example, can damage both your oral and heart health, apart from all the other health risks it poses. Taking care of your weight and blood pressure can also help with both areas of your health.
Although they’re called the same thing, the plaque in your mouth and your veins are actually different. Atherosclerosis, the thickening or hardening of the arteries that is a major cause of heart attacks and strokes, occurs when fat, cholesterol, calcium and scar tissue build up and cause blockages that impede the flow of blood to your organs. Plaque in the mouth is a film of bacteria that can accumulate on your teeth. Left untreated, it can harden into tartar or calculus and cause tooth decay and gum disease. When bacteria from the mouth gets into the bloodstream, it can damage the lining of your arteries and contribute to the build-up of arterial plaque.
Ischemia refers to restricted or reduced blood flow to an organ or part of the body. This kind of heart disease can be caused or worsened by untreated periodontitis. When there’s plaque in your arteries, they become narrower, making it harder for blood and the oxygen it carries to travel through. This kind of heart disease can lead to what’s called “silent ischemia,” or a heart attack that comes without the usual warning signs. There’s also a danger of ischemic clots being formed. If a part of the clot breaks off, it can travel in the bloodstream and potentially lodge in the brain.
One of the signs of periodontitis is ongoing inflammation of the gums. Studies have shown that this can affect other systems in the body, including the cardiovascular system. It’s even been linked to cancer, although more investigation is needed.
It’s clear that heart disease isn’t the only threat to your cardiovascular system. Another name for a blood clot is a “thrombus”, so “thrombogenesis” refers to the creation of blood clots. Clots aren’t just troublemakers in the body – they play an important role in stopping bleeding and starting the healing of cuts and scrapes.
When a clot ends up in the wrong place, however, it can create a blockage that deprives vital organs of oxygen and other important components of the blood. The resulting tissue death is known as an infarction. When it happens in the heart, it’s a heart attack. If it happens in the brain, it’s a stroke. No matter which system is hit, the effects of this devastating attack will be felt throughout the body.
When the bacteria from gum disease get into your bloodstream, they hide by making the platelets in your blood clump together around them. This subterfuge helps them to avoid detection by your immune system. Unfortunately, these clumps of platelets can cause clots to form. Carried by the bloodstream, these blood clots can cause problems throughout your body – and if that’s not enough motivation to take better care of your gums, we don’t know what is.
It is clear that taking good care of your oral health by maintaining good habits is even more important than your parents told you. It’s never too late to build good oral hygiene habits to avoid periodontal disease and other problems.
The basics haven’t changed: brush your teeth twice daily and floss at least once a day. Make sure that you’re brushing correctly, too. Make small circular movements with your brush at a slight angle to the teeth rather than just sawing back and forth. There are lots of great demonstration videos on the internet. It’s best to use a soft toothbrush unless your dentist advises you otherwise. If you struggle with traditional flossing, there are plenty of alternatives on the market. Speak to your dentist and try a few to find out what’s right for you.
Once you have your good oral hygiene habits down, it’s time to schedule your appointment with a dentist. In addition to making sure that everything is going well, your dentist or oral hygienist also gives your mouth a deep clean, giving attention to all those small, difficult spots that normal brushing can’t quite manage. You should be visiting your dentist twice a year – make your next appointment as you leave to ensure that you don’t forget.
Good oral hygiene protects your health in many ways. In addition to the heart problems that periodontitis can cause, it can have more direct consequences, too. If you’re experiencing tooth or gum pain, it will affect your mastication (how you chew). That might not seem important, but chewing is a vital part of your digestive process – not to mention that poorly chewed food is inevitably a choking hazard.
Chewing is the first step in your body breaking down food so that it can absorb its nutrients. Larger chunks of food entering your stomach can cause digestive problems like gas, bloating and constipation. Finally, not chewing your food properly makes you eat faster, which can cause you to eat more before you start to feel full.
If you don’t have your next dental checkup appointment booked, now is the time to do it! Our friendly, professional team of dental experts will help you take care of your teeth and gums and work with you to bring out your most dazzling smile.