February 2012

Life-Changing Dentistry: Healthy Gums, Healthy Heart

Author: Dr. Bonnie Rothwell

Valentine’s Day is the holiday in February where we show our loved ones how much we care about them. This is traditionally carried out by sending flowers, greeting cards, candy or special gifts in tiny boxes that bring big smiles to the recipient. It’s a time when we express the feelings in our hearts that may get lost in the shuffle of our day-to-day lives.

February is also American Heart Month. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Now, you may wonder why I would mention such a serious topic in relation to Valentine’s Day. The reason is while we are thinking of our loved ones and the feelings in our hearts, we should also be thinking about keeping our hearts healthy as well as the hearts of those for whom we care.

We all know that some major risk factors for heart disease are poor diet, smoking and genetics. I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on the correlation of heart disease and gum disease.

Gum disease, or periodontal disease is an inflammatory disease process of the mouth that affects the surrounding structures of the teeth, i.e. the gum tissue and bone. There are many stages of gum disease, starting with gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gum tissue, all the way to severe bone loss and tooth loss.

How does this affect your heart? The inflammation of the gums is caused by bacteria in the mouth. Inflamed gum tissue bleeds easily. Anytime there is bleeding in the mouth, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream. This can cause an increase in inflammation throughout the body, and this inflammation is a major risk factor for heart disease.

Studies suggest that people with untreated periodontal disease are more likely to have a heart attack than if they have high blood pressure and high cholesterol combined.

The best defense against periodontal disease is good oral hygiene habits and regular visits to the dentist or periodontist. Good oral hygiene habits include brushing after eating and flossing at least once a day. A good daily oral mouthwash is also helpful in eliminating the disease causing bacteria in the mouth.

Dental professionals perform a quick and easy test to determine the health of your gums. The test involves measuring between the teeth and the gums the distance between the top of the gum tissue (that you can see) and the place where the gum tissue attaches to the tooth. This space forms a sulcus around the teeth where plaque and bacteria can live and grow causing inflammation. A sulcus that measures between 0-3mm deep below the gum line is considered healthy. The reason a 3mm sulcus is considered healthy is due to the fact that brushing and flossing can reach 3mm below the gum line to clean out the harmful plaque and bacteria. Measurements 4mm or higher mean daily brushing and flossing cannot reach all the harmful plaque and bacteria that can cause gum disease.

These areas require treatment by dental professionals to restore the gums to a healthy state that can then be maintained with good home care. Also noted by the dental professional is any bleeding which may be present. As mentioned earlier, bleeding gums is a way for bacteria to enter the bloodstream. As a rule, healthy gums should not bleed.

Periodontal disease often causes no pain or discomfort to individuals until the advanced stages of the disease when it is often difficult to treat. Patients often feel if there is no pain, there is no problem. The only way to know gums are healthy is with the diagnostic tests and x-rays by the dental professionals.

Dental x-rays should be done once or twice a year. They allow the dentist to see in between the teeth and below the gum line. Bone cannot be maintained in the presence of inflammation, and the dentist can detect areas of bone loss with an x-ray that cannot be seen otherwise. Early detection and treatment provide the greatest success rate for a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums and a healthy heart.

So back to Valentine’s Day. Do something wonderful for yourself and your loved ones—make an appointment to see your dentist. And as for special gifts in tiny boxes that bring big smiles? My choice is…floss!

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