Heart disease ranks as the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S., resulting in approximately 600,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, roughly 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 experience a first time heart attack and 190,000 happen to individuals who have already suffered a heart attack.
Lowering their risk of heart disease has caused millions of Americans to dramatically alter their diet, weight, and lifestyle to improve long-term health. But could visiting your dentist help prevent a heart attack? In recent years, more research has begun to draw a connection between oral health and hygiene and cardiovascular disease.
While a number of potential risk factors exist, one primarily stands out: gum disease.
The Mouth/Heart Connection
A recent study published in The Journal of Periodontology has found that the inflammation caused by gum disease, a chronic bacterial infection of the gum tissue, causes bacterial byproducts from the mouth to enter the bloodstream where it can trigger the liver to produce substances that increase an individual’s risk of heart disease.
Surprisingly, researchers discovered this link between gum disease and heart health exists even in patients who have no teeth. Individuals who wear dentures that fit poorly can develop an infection and inflammation throughout the mouth that can also trigger the liver to produce these same substances.
The type of inflammation that oral bacteria causes is measurable. A substance produced by the body referred to as high-sensitivity C-reactive-protein or HS-CRP is believed to act as a prime contributed in the link between heart disease and gum disease. Fortunately, a test is widely available that can measure HS-CRP in the body. Determining the presence of HS-CRP can serve as a potential early warning indicator of an individual’s risk of heart disease.
A few studies have estimated that HS-CRP relates to dental health over 50 percent of the time. For the best health, your level of HS-CRP should be under one percent. Originally though to be specific to only heart disease, researchers have found that HS-CRP acts as a nonspecific marker for inflammation. Research from a number of studies have shown that frequent, low-levels of inflammation are the root of the majority of chronic diseases. Health experts recommend viewing the substance this way: HS-CRP is smoke and it cause your doctor to look for the fire.
Oral Health Difference
Despite the pressing long-term consequences of poor oral health, many adults in the U.S. fail to adequately care for their teeth and gums. The American Dental Association recommends brushing twice a day for at least two minutes, and flossing at least once a day. However, despite this recommendation, studies conducted by the ADA have found that the average adult brushes for a total of 30 seconds a day, and that 47 percent of the U.S. population fails to floss daily.
In addition to brushing a flossing, the ADA also recommends visiting the dentist at least twice a year. But studies have shown that 40 percent of the country fails to visit the dentist regularly either due to dental anxiety or an inability to afford care. Experts who testified before recent U.S. Senate subcommittee highlighting dental care in the country describe the nation’s oral health as a crisis.
Considering the already high rates of heart disease, the number of Americans facing the threat of heart attack seems destined to climb higher as more research continues to link the heart and mouth. However, there is hope that by brushing aside bad habits and embracing better oral hygiene the country may begin to eliminate one of, what now appears to be, primary causes of heart disease.
John Nickelbottom is a freelance health and science writer.