In my years as a hygienist, I have noticed that runners typically have healthy gums. I initially assumed that a typical runner’s type-A personality also lent itself to diligent dental care at home, but current research has led the profession to the classic chicken/egg question: Do runners have healthy gums due to the heart benefits of running or do healthy gums lead to healthy hearts?
In the past 20 years, the dental profession has become aware of many diseases in which gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) is a contributing factor. Foremost among these is heart disease.
More recently, we have become aware of the link between dental health and overall health. Studies in this area seem to have originated with the link between gum disease and cardiovascular health, so let’s start there.
We all have naturally occurring bacteria in our mouths that help in the initial stages of food digestion. These bacteria thrive on the sugars on our teeth. When bacteria are not disrupted regularly by brushing and flossing, their acidic byproducts cause irritation and inflammation to the gum tissues – causing them to bleed. This condition is known as gingivitis.
More advanced forms of gum disease cause destruction of the bony support of the teeth, referred to as periodontal disease. Bleeding gum tissue allows oral bacteria to enter the bloodstream where it gets carried throughout the body to areas where it can cause harm. The heart and cardiovascular system are one area where oral bacteria can have a negative impact.
Once the bacteria enter the bloodstream, they cause an elevation in the marker for inflammation known as C-reactive protein. Elevated levels of this marker can indicate a number of diseases, ranging from arthritis to many cancers. This inflammation in the blood vessels can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies have also shown oral bacteria to be present in the plaque found in the inner lining of blood vessels affected by atherosclerosis.
Flossing daily has been shown to add an average of 6.4 years to a person’s life. Possible prevention of heart disease is most likely one of the reasons. As more research is published, we will have a greater understanding of how oral health affects overall health, including more treatment options. Until then, follow home care recommendations suggested by your dentist and hygienist and return for visits in the timeframe they recommend.
To learn more about how your oral health impacts your overall health, contact us. If it is time for a dental check-up, schedule your appointment today.