The Heart-Mouth Connection

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Filed Under: Heart Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

The Heart-Mouth Connection

As a kid, I was made to dutifully watch my father as he demonstrated proper brushing and flossing techniques. He showed me, in exacting detail, how to do it, where to do it, and for how long. He was extremely precise. And then, of course, when it was my turn, I did it my way, not his.

Needless to say, this led to many battles between father and son, etched in my memory for the remainder of my days. I suppose his lessons did reach me at some level, at least often enough to feel a twinge of guilt if I climbed into bed without flossing.

As I entered my teenage years, dating reframed my concerns about how my mouth looked and my breath smelled. So, behind closed doors, I would conjure up that image of dad’s enthusiastic brushing behavior, and start to follow his example with a more genuine interest.

It may have taken 13 years, but it was then that I finally adopted his behavior as my own, a habit that’s become lifelong. To this day, I floss my teeth on a regular basis, and brush my teeth at least twice daily. I’m not one to brag, mind you, but I’m happy to say that I still have all my own teeth (including wisdom teeth) and, as a cardiologist, I have a whole new respect for the gift of my dad’s good example. Here’s why.

Toothpaste Is Good for More Than Your Teeth

Practicing sound oral hygiene is not only good for the mouth, teeth, and gums—it’s a key component of cardiovascular health. Studies have shown that the bacteria found in and around the periodontal spaces in your mouth are also found in the heart and other organs. So, many researchers consider periodontal disease to be a red flag for a core problem, and as such, a significant cardiac risk factor.

Periodontal diseases are serious infections that, left untreated, can result in tooth and bone loss. One study actually looked at the condition of the mouth, teeth, and oral cavities of people with known heart disease who were studied with coronary arteriography. As expected, the presence of periodontal disease was highly correlated with cardiovascular disease, indicating the proposed connection to be all too real. And since good oral hygiene is the best way to prevent periodontal disease, it’s also a good practice if you want to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Periodontal literally means “around the tooth,” and the disease affects both the gum and the bone that support the tooth. The amount of bacterial plaque that insidiously and continuously forms on your teeth can inflame the gums. Over time, the gums redden, swell, and bleed quite easily on contact with food or while brushing your teeth.

This is called gingivitis. It can lead to more serious periodontitis as more plaque and bacteria spread and infiltrate below the gum line.

Because your mouth and heart are relatively close, bacteria in your mouth can be transported by your blood to the heart valves and coronary vessels, leading to a silent inflammatory response that can undermine the immune system, and trigger inflammatory mediators, such as cytokines and white blood cells, into action.

The connection to oral hygiene is even more striking if you have valvular heart disease. Anyone with mitral valve prolapse knows the precautions you must take whenever you have dental work: prophylactic antibiotic therapy before any dental work.

Physicians, dentists, and researchers are well acquainted with this connection. Cardiologists call this “infective endocarditis,” and I’ve seen my share of such cases, some of them fatal. Researchers have also found a relationship between periodontal disease and heart attack.

So, it behooves us to practice good oral hygiene and lower the number of bacteria in our mouths to help prevent bacteria from translocating via the bloodstream. Consider oral hygiene as cardiovascular care.

Good Habits Today Mean Healthy Hearts Tomorrow

It is vital to teach our children and grandchildren about brushing their teeth. This seemingly simple act is so important. Brushing your teeth will reduce bacteria and help prevent additional plaque and tartar from forming.

The best type of toothbrush is one without “hard” bristles. They can tear and injure your delicate gums. Medium and soft bristles massage gum (gingival) tissue and help improve the local circulation along the gum line. Rotary toothbrushes, oral irrigation devices, mouthwash, antiseptics, and antimicrobials are also very important to proper oral hygiene.

Remember, not only will good oral hygiene provide you, your children, and grandchildren with a healthier-looking mouth and sweeter breath, but your hearts will love you for it as well.

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