It’s February again. Pink and red hearts dance in the candy and card aisles at every drug store and corner market.
In addition to the long-celebrated Valentine’s Day, February also plays host to American Heart Month. Americans first recognized American Heart Month in 1964 in an effort to draw attention to the problem of heart disease in the US and encourage everyone to work together for solutions.
Today, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the CDC, “Heart disease costs the United States about $229 billion each year from 2017 to 2018. This includes the cost of healthcare services, medicines, and lost productivity due to death.”
In this post, we’ll explore the connection between the mouth and the heart and offer practical tips for keeping both healthy and strong.
Connecting Oral Health and Heart Health
“For me, it’s been one of the more surprising observations in recent years: study after study has shown that people who have poor oral health (such as gum disease or tooth loss) have higher rates of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack or stroke than people with good oral health.” – Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Harvard Health
Those who’ve studied the connection between a healthy mouth and a healthy heart have said time and again that gum disease and other tooth issues don’t necessarily cause heart disease. But they’ve also said repeatedly that unhealthy mouths tend to go along with unhealthy people…including those with heart disease.
Why is that? What’s the link between oral health and heart health?
“Oral health and heart disease are connected by the spread of bacteria – and other germs – from your mouth to other parts of your body through the bloodstream. When these bacteria reach the heart, they can attach themselves to any damaged area and cause inflammation.” – Colgate
One of the key connections is the inflammation that bacteria in the mouth contributes to — inflammation puts you at risk for heart problems.
Another connection is the fact that some of the same risk factors that contribute to heart disease contribute to gum disease, so someone who has one may have the other… even if one didn’t cause the other.
For example, the CDC says that diabetes, obesity, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, and an unhealthy diet all increase someone’s risk for heart problems. At the same time, diabetes and an unhealthy diet are also risk factors for gum disease.
Another shared risk factor is smoking, which has been proven detrimental to heart health, gum health, and overall well-being.
“To date, there’s no proof that treating gum disease will prevent cardiovascular disease or its complications. But the connection is compelling enough that dentists (and many doctors) say it’s yet another reason to be vigilant about preventing gum disease in the first place.”
– Harvard Health
Signs of Health Problems Your Dentist Sees
Dentists get a glimpse of their patients’ health when they do routine examinations. Some signs of trouble in the mouth are easy to spot:
- Red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums
- Loose teeth
- Cracked teeth
- Bad breath
- Discoloration of teeth
- Dry mouth
- Receding gums
- Unusual sores or lumps in the mouth
Some of these are signs of gum disease, but some also point to other broader health problems… diabetes, for example. The CDC says that inflamed, bleeding gums have a connection to diabetes. So does a dry mouth. Patients with diabetes sometimes create less saliva, leaving their mouths dry and prone to trouble with speaking and eating.
Diabetes, in turn, increases risk for heart disease.
“Diabetes and heart disease often go hand-in-hand. In fact, adults with diabetes are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those without it.”
– American Diabetes Association
You may have thought that dentists can only help you take care of your teeth, and they do. But they also help you take care of your overall health.
What they see when they take a peek inside your mouth tells them a whole lot about your overall health. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to what’s going on with your teeth and let your dentist help you do that, too.
Keeping Your Teeth and Heart Healthy
While there’s no guarantee that keeping your gums healthy will keep you from developing heart disease, there are steps you can take to maintain both a healthy mouth and a healthy heart.
Here are five tips for maintaining both:
- Practice good oral hygiene by brushing twice a day and flossing at least once. These are two of the easiest habits to add to your day, if you haven’t already. Brushing and flossing regularly help remove plaque and bacteria that can cause oral health issues and potentially increase the risk of heart disease.
- Eat a healthy diet that’s balanced with protein, healthy fats, and healthy carbs. Eat plenty of veggies, the amount of fruit your doctor recommends for you, and rich sources of protein. It’s also helpful to reduce the amount of sugary drinks and snacks you eat. Not only will that cut down on your risk of diabetes and heart disease, but it’ll also help you keep your teeth healthy and strong.
- Avoid smoking and excessive drinking. Research has shown smoking to be a shared risk factor for oral health decline and heart diseases. Drinking in excess can also contribute to both. Staying away from cigarettes, vapes, and excessive drinking are simple ways to keep both your mouth and your heart healthier.
- See both your dentist and doctor for regular check-ups. Most people have a primary care doctor, but many don’t have a dentist they see regularly. Adding a dentist to your medical team, scheduling regular visits, and keeping your doctor informed about any changes in your oral health can increase your chances of catching any problems with your teeth or your heart early enough to do something about them.
- Reduce stress. Because stress is linked to both oral and heart health issues, reducing it is an effective way to maintain health in both areas. Do things you love — spending time outdoors, meditating, watching the sunrise, walking with your significant other — to keep the stress down and keep yourself healthy.
If you’re concerned about your oral and heart health this American Heart Month, give our team at TrueCare Dentistry a call.