How Saving Your Teeth Could Save Your Life

Featured Article, Healthy Aging, Healthy Heart, Healthy Living, Heart attack, Stroke
on June 27, 2013
Woman at her dental visit.

When we were kids, losing teeth meant fairy dust and coinage under our pillows. But losing adult teeth because of periodontal disease—bacteria-fueled infection and inflammation of the gums–points to something more dire: an increase in your risk for heart disease.

According to a 2013 study at Uppsala University in Sweden of 16,000 people, for each lost tooth resulted in an increase in enzymes that stoke inflammation and hardening of the arteries.  Fewer teeth also came with more risk factors for heart disease such as increased levels of LDL cholesterol (the harmful kind) and higher blood sugar, blood pressure and waist size.  What’s more, the risk for diabetes increased 11 percent.

“You can’t say that there is a direct cause and effect,” says Dr. Nancy Newhouse, president of the American Academy of Periodontology and assistant clinical professor at the University of Missouri School of Dentistry in Kansas City. “But you can say that periodontal disease is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

The link? “When someone has periodontal disease, inflammation throughout the body is heightened,” says Dr. Robert J. Genco, distinguished professor of oral biology, microbiology and immunology at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. “And periodontal bacteria have been found in atheromas [fatty plaque in the blood vessels] in the neck and heart.”  When that plaque ruptures and forms blood clots, the blockage leads to a heart attack or stroke.

So, how can you keep your teeth?

Although taking care of your teeth is no guarantee that you’ll avoid heart disease altogether, at the least you’ll have fresher breath and better overall health, Newhouse says: “If you can start eliminating risk factors, and you can control them, why wouldn’t you?”

Here’s your tooth loss prevention plan.

Know how to brush. “You’re trying to remove bacteria attached to the tooth surface, not just food debris,” says Newhouse. Use a soft brush and clean in a rotating motion, especially at the gum-tooth line where bacteria love to hang out.

Genco recommends brushing at least twice a day. “And just as important is cleaning between the teeth with floss, rubber tips or toothpicks.”

Go beyond professional cleanings. Seeing your dentist twice a year for cleanings isn’t a hard and fast rule, says Newhouse: “See your dentist as often as you need to stay healthy, whether you’re talking about tooth decay or periodontal disease.”

If your dentist says you have a high risk for periodontal disease (bleeding or receding gums are your most obvious clue), insist on a periodontal exam at every dental visit, says Genco. The exam involves measuring the pockets between teeth and gums. “Any measurement over 5 ml should be treated,” he says.  Treatment involves cleaning the bacteria out of the pockets called deep scaling. More serious cases might require gum surgery or, in the case of bone loss, bone grafting.

Get a fluoride fix. “Fluoride is the medical magic bullet of the 20th century,” says Newhouse. “It makes your teeth much less susceptible to breakdown by bacterial acid, reducing the risk of decay.”  Buy toothpaste with fluoride and have a fluoride treatment at each dental visit.

Review your medications. “About 500 medications dry your mouth, which increases the incidence of decay,” says Newhouse. Ask your dentist what you can do to lessen the drying effect, such as chewing on sugar-free gum and sipping water frequently.

Nix sips of sugar. Gulping down a sugary drink is one thing. But slow sipping, sucking or chewing anything with sugar creates an ongoing buffet for bacteria, upping chances for decay. Switch to water or sugar-free drinks.

Add heart care to tooth care. “If you have periodontal disease, have a medical check-up to make sure you don’t have signs of heart disease” and plaque build-up in your arteries, says Genco. And the reverse is true: if you have heart disease, ask your dentist to check your gums for periodontal disease.