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Healthy Mouth, Healthy Heart | Winter 2008 Out Here Magazine


Keep cardiac problems at bay with your toothbrush

By Bethanne Black
Illustrations by Tom Milner

We all know why we should dutifully brush our teeth: to prevent tooth decay. But did you know it could keep your heart healthy, too?

Periodontal, or gum, diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis affect the gums and bone supporting the teeth, explains Dr. Susan Karabin, periodontist and president of the American Academy of Periodontology.

And, several studies say, people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease as those without. That's because bacteria that starts in your mouth can find its way to your heart muscle.

Gum diseases begin when bacteria in plaque (the sticky, colorless film that constantly forms on your teeth) causes the gums to become inflamed, Karabin says.

"A dirty mouth is like a factory dumping into a river. Using this analogy, the bacteria from your mouth is the sewage that can seep into your bloodstream, or in this case the river, causing it to become polluted," she explains.

That bacteria can cause inflammation of the arteries around the heart, increasing the risk of heart attack. Indeed, people with certain heart conditions must be especially vigilant about their gum health. For example, patients with a heart murmur or damaged or floppy heart valves are at risk of the bacteria in the bloodstream settling on the damaged part of the heart.

Nearly 36 million Americans have periodontitis, according to the American Academy of Periodontology, and that number is expected to grow.

"Your chances of developing periodontal disease increase considerably as you get older," Karabin says.

More than half of people aged 55 and older have periodontitis. Factors that may increase older people's risk include general health status, a compromised immune system, medications, depression, worsening memory, smoking, and diabetes.

Some people may have periodontitis and not experience any symptoms. However, the most common signs to watch for include:

  • Red, swollen, or tender gums.
  • Bleeding when brushing or flossing.
  • Gums pulling away from the teeth.
  • Loose or separating teeth.
  • Pus between the gum and the tooth.
  • Persistent bad breath.
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite.
  • A change in the fit of partial dentures.

Now that you know the symptoms of periodontal disease, it's important to take action with a prevention plan.

Brush and floss your teeth at least two times per day, especially after meals and before bedtime, Karabin advises. It's important to note that while daily cleaning will help keep plaque formation to a minimum, it won't completely prevent it.

Ask your dental professional whether you're brushing and flossing your teeth correctly. View a free AAP brochure on how to brush and floss at

Make sure you get a professional dental cleaning at least twice a year. This is necessary to remove plaque from places your toothbrush and floss may have missed.

Bethanne Black, of Atlanta, is a writer who specializes in health issues.