Gum disease increases the risk of heart attack, cardiovascular disease

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a romantic sense, it’s often hard for the mouth to verbalize how the heart is feeling. When it comes to matters of pure physical health, however, a new study suggests the heart and mouth are better connected. Researchers from Forsyth Institute and Harvard University report people dealing with periodontitis are at a higher risk of suffering major cardiac events including a heart attack or stroke.

Characterized by swollen, painful, and bleeding gums, periodontitis is a common, but quite avoidable infection. For most people, a typical dental routine of brushing and flossing twice a day should be enough to stop periodontitis from emerging. However, if left untreated, this gum disease can lead to tooth loss.

Now, this new research is offering up evidence that periodontitis-associated inflammation is predictive of arterial inflammation. This issue often leads to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular issues.

Scanning the mouth to predict heart health

Researchers found that inflammation associated with active gum disease was predictive of arterial inflammation, which can cause heart attacks, strokes, and other dangerous manifestations of cardiovascular disease. (Credit: Forsyth Institute)

Researchers carried out positron emission tomography and computer tomography (PET and CT) scans on a group of 304 volunteers. This provided some baseline data on each person’s heart and oral health. Nearly four years later, a series of follow-up assessments revealed that 13 of those individuals ended up experiencing some form of major adverse cardiovascular event.

Even after accounting for other potentially influential factors like smoking habits, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, researchers concluded that periodontal inflammation levels among each patient could predict heart issues.

It is important to note, though, that study authors do not believe bone loss stemming from prior bouts of periodontal disease link up with heart health outcomes. Across the board, study participants who didn’t have an active case of periodontitis had a lower risk of heart problems. This remained true even if they had dealt with gum inflammation in the past (as revealed by CT scans).

“This is very definitely related to people who have currently active inflammatory disease,” says study co-author Dr. Thomas Van Dyke, who is also Vice President of Clinical and Translational Research at Forsyth, in a university release.

What links gum problems to heart disease?

As far as what is driving the connection between periodontitis and heart health, researchers theorize that gum inflammation activates and mobilizes cell signaling through bone marrow. This leads to arterial inflammation, which in turn can cause heart attacks and other problems.

Study authors add another round of research with a larger subject sample is necessary before they can arrive at any definitive conclusions. The team still says it’s a good idea for anyone dealing with gum issues to waste no time seeking treatment. It may just help them avoid a serious cardiac event.

“If you’re in the age zone for cardiovascular disease or have known cardiovascular disease, ignoring your periodontal disease can actually be dangerous and may increase your risk for a heart attack,” Van Dyke concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Periodontology.