Brush It Off

Father and son brushing their teeth together.

When Justin Hurlburt, DMD, looks inside a patient’s mouth, he’s actually looking at their heart, too.

That’s because when there are problems in your mouth, like tooth decay or gum disease – all caused by bacteria – those same problems can find their way to other parts of your body, especially your heart and cardiovascular system.

“We see really sick patients who need heart valve replacements and they have infections in their mouth,” says Dr. Hurlburt, Dental Site Leader and Residency Director at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Dental and Oral Health Clinic in South Burlington. Dentists are often called in to examine a patient’s teeth and gums before they undergo heart surgery or other procedures where doctors are concerned about infection risk related to poor oral health. Any issues in the mouth, like rotten teeth or advanced gum disease, introduces bacteria into the bloodstream, which can cause life-threatening infections in other areas of the body – especially the heart.

Fellow dentist Marissa Hebert, DMD, recently presented information on oral health and its impacts on the body during the Family Medicine Department Grand Rounds at the UVM Medical Center. She points out that bacteria that cause gum disease are particularly destructive, and when they get into the blood stream they can damage blood vessels and organs like the heart.

This bacteria produces a toxin that triggers a particularly strong response from the body’s immune system resulting in inflammation. That’s why gums get red, puffy and bleed when infected due to a lack of brushing, flossing and regular dental check-ups. The same thing happens to your blood vessels and heart tissue when that bacteria enters the bloodstream from your mouth. Bacteria gets lodged in cholesterol deposits or other debris leading to infection, just like in your mouth.

Infections in both blood vessels and the heart cause plaques, like a sore, which your body tries to heal. This causes swelling and, when it gets bad enough, creates a cycle of infection, immune system response and swelling, which can cause a blockage. These plaques can also break off, like a scab, and float around your cardiovascular system and get stuck, blocking blood flow. This can trigger a heart attack, stroke or other serious health problems. 

The National Institute on Aging even published an article about studies linking poor oral hygiene to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A report from the American Dental Association also linked gum disease to an increased risk of diabetes. 

The good news? 

There are some very simple things you can do to help avoid all of this:

  • Brush twice a day, every day.
  • Floss once a day, every day.
  • See your dentist at least once a year and follow their recommendations for how often you should receive professional dental cleanings.

“The idea of losing a tooth to gum disease isn’t always as scary to people,” says Dr. Hebert. “But having a heart attack or stroke is.”

Dr. Hebert hopes that, by increasing awareness with patients through their family physician, oral health will become a priority. 

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