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Ted R. (name changed for privacy) was slammed by two seemingly unrelated disorders. First, he suffered a heart attack, then he was diagnosed with a severe dental infection the next morning. The double whammy may have been more than just bad luck, since a recent study found that on average, heart attack victims have significantly worse oral health than other people of the same age and sex.

Research also shows that people with periodontal disease are nearly twice as likely to have heart disease than those with healthy gums. What’s more, oral infections also raise risk for stroke, says Amy Doneen, ARNP, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Washington. “We’ve started checking patients for periodontal disease because it can sometimes lead to a heart attack or stroke, while treating infected gums reduces risk.”

What’s the link between oral health and the heart? “The bacteria that cause gums to become swollen and inflamed can also spark systematic inflammation that silently damages blood vessels,” explains Doneen. “Heart attack and stroke are opportunistic problems that are driven by inflammation of plaque in the arteries, which can rupture, causing a blood clot to form.” That clot can trigger a heart attack (if the clot travels to vessels that supply the heart) or stroke (if it goes to the brain).

Warning signs of periodontal disease include red, swollen, tender or receding gums, bleeding when brushing or flossing, persistent bad breath, mouth sores, and pockets of pus between gums and teeth. One in three adults over 30 has periodontal disease—and millions of them don’t know it.  Ask your dentist to check your gums, which typically involves taking painless measurements with a periodontal probe to check for pockets of disease.

The good news is that once diagnosed, gum disease can be treated, adds Doneen. “Repairing the problem has huge benefits for your blood vessels.” One study found that after six months of intensive treatment, patients with periodontal disease not only had healthier gums, but also improved endothelial function, indicating that the inner lining of their blood vessels also benefited.

Good oral health—including brushing and flossing two to three times a day, and seeing your dentist at least once a year—can give you a lot to smile about.


Wondering if you might have gum disease? The American Academy of Periodontology has a risk assessment test and oral health tips.  University of Maryland has a detailed report on prevention and daily dental care.