By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., Best Life lead nutritionist
For years now, scientists have known that periodontal disease increases the risk for heart disease. Now, a new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that if you take care of your gums you can reduce a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
A research team led by Columbia University in New York City examined the mouths of 420 middle-aged men and women for periodontal disease. (Periodontal disease is caused when bacterial plaque on the teeth move into the gums causing inflammation. This can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth, causing “pockets” that become infected with bacteria, and eventually lead to tooth loss.) Researchers collected gum bacterial samples and used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the carotid arteries, which supply the brain with blood. Artery thickness is a marker for stroke and heart disease; if the carotid arteries get clogged with plaque, you can bet the coronary arteries leading to the heart are clogging as well.
Three years later, people whose oral health improved (read: they had fewer bacteria linked to heart disease in their mouth) had a much slower rate of carotid artery thickening than those whose periodontal disease was worse or remained the same. It doesn’t take much plaque to have devastating consequences. Picture this: a 0.033-millimeter-per-year increase in carotid artery thickness doubles the risk of heart disease and heart attack. In this study, people with gums that deteriorated, developed, on average, a 0.1-mm increase, meaning their heart disease risk shot up six-fold.
How does your mouth affect your arteries? The inflammatory compounds released by oral bacteria appear to travel to arteries. Arterial plaque is triggered when inflammatory compounds cause immune cells to swarm in, and, in the process, deposit substances that build up into plaque.
Your best defense against the bacteria that cause periodontal disease and ultimately, heart disease: Brush twice a day, floss daily, and get regular dental check-ups. Think you’re safe because you’ve been given the all clear by your dentist? That’s no reason to slack off. In the Columbia study, people whose “bad” mouth bacteria levels rose over three years, but not enough to qualify as having periodontal disease, saw increased thickening of the carotid artery. And of course, a well-balanced diet (like the Best Life diet) and adequate vitamin D and calcium can also help keep your teeth, gums and heart healthy.