Important Things to Know About Heart Health

Researchers found an important link to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans. Learn how this link has been shown to contribute to diseases of the heart.

Important things to know about heart health

Photo from Flickr by Patrick J. Lynch. 

We already know that dental health and heart health are important for our wellbeing. Researchers spend so much time and effort studying related diseases and conditions to find out how we can live long, healthy lives. But one of the things researchers have discovered is that there is a link between dental health and heart health.

Not fond of going to the dentist? Here is one really good reason to keep up with your regular dental cleanings…

Our heart health is directly related to our dental health.

How so, you ask. Here's the scoop:

What Does Cardiovascular Health Have to Do With Our Teeth?

You might have heard the news, but researchers have discovered that there is a correlation between gum disease and heart disease. The bad bacteria, called anaerobic bacteria, in the mouth enters the bloodstream through the soft tissues in the mouth and through the deep gum pockets. With poor dental health, the anaerobic bacteria has an opportunity to run rampant, thriving and causing dental problems including gum decay and recession, cavities, plaque buildup, and tooth decay and bone loss.

But poor dental health and the growth of the anaerobic bacteria doesn't just affect the health of the mouth; it can lead to other health problems as well. One important area is the heart.

When the bacteria enters the bloodstream, it can wreak havoc on the rest of the body, especially with how effectively and efficiently the heart pumps blood to places like the brain and other vital organs. For example, when harmful bacteria from an infected mouth lodges itself inside a blood vessel, it can accumulate on the vessel wall, causing a buildup that hinders the blood flow and ultimately leading to a dangerous blockage. Plaque buildup in the blood vessels can prevent the blood from flowing properly throughout the body. If it impacts the blood vessels associated with the brain, a stroke can occur. It can also affect other organs like the lungs, liver, and kidneys.

Proper function of our internal organs requires a certain amount of blood flow. If our organs do not get an adequate supply, damage can occur, leading to additional serious health conditions like heart disease, kidney failure, and a more serious form of gum disease called periodontitis.

According to the National Institutes of Health, researchers have found fragments of periodontal bacteria when analyzing atherosclerotic blood vessels. This means that bacteria from the mouth was found in the blood vessels that had hardened or where plaque buildup occurred. In normal cases, when the bacteria enters the bloodstream, the immune system is able to fight against the infection. But when the immune system is compromised, the body is at risk of developing a life-threatening illness. It can occur over a long period of time, accumulating slowly and eventually leading to a heart attack or stroke.

The Importance of Saliva

Saliva is a necessary part of our dental health and it helps keep the rest of our bodies healthy as well. It helps wash away bacteria, food particles, and other contaminants and it also helps neutralize the pH level in our mouths.

Studies have shown that a healthy mouth has a healthy pH balance. Studies have also shown that a healthy pH balance in the body can aid the immune system in fighting infections. Researchers have discovered that when a certain pH level is reached, it can create an ideal environment for bacteria and viruses to set in and it can trigger conditions that lead to cancer in the body.

When it comes to dental health, a pH that is too low (too acidic) contributes to tooth decay so it's important to maintain a proper pH balance with adequate saliva production and a healthy balanced diet.

But did you know that dry mouth is a common side effect of many prescription medications?

While you might be taking a medication for one symptom, you might also be inadvertently exacerbating the problem of reduced saliva production which could ultimately contribute to heart disease via gum disease.

Many prescription medications cause a reduction in saliva production which results in dry mouth, a dental condition that allows the bad bacteria to grow on the tongue and on and around the teeth, eventually resulting in gingivitis (mild gum disease) or periodontitis (severe gum disease). As we introduce more and more prescription medications to our everyday routine to tackle health issues, we are, as a result, exposing ourselves to potential harmful side effects such as dry mouth which can potentially lead to the health conditions we are trying to prevent with the medications.

Most people don't realize that our dental health is directly related to the health of the rest of our bodies. In addition to cardiovascular diseases, researchers have found that gum disease can also lead to Alzheimer's disease, pneumonia, diabetes, pancreatic cancer, and pregnancy-related complications.

As we age, we need to work harder at protecting our bodies and giving them the right vitamins and nutrients to keep us healthy.

Researchers have discovered that the plaque in the mouth can be absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in plaque buildup in the blood vessels and arteries. Bacteria in the mouth can also be absorbed into the bloodstream and spread rapidly throughout the body, resulting in infections in other areas. If the bacteria is allowed to reach the heart, it can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other heart condition.

Not surprisingly, inflammation is a common problem in both gum disease and heart disease. Experts say that the hardening of the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis, has a strong component of inflammation and that much of the progression of plaque is an inflammatory process. Likewise, gingivitis, the early stage of gum disease, occurs when the gums become inflamed and bacteria overtake the mouth.

Studies have shown that gum disease is a risk factor for coronary artery disease and an important risk factor for diseases of the blood vessels and the arteries that supply the brain, particularly strokes involving insufficient blood or oxygen to the brain. Other research has discovered that people with fewer teeth and more gum disease have a higher risk of stroke. Additionally, research has found a direct link between gum disease and clogged arteries in the legs.

There still needs to be more research conducted on the correlation between oral health and heart health as the link isn't clearly defined. While it appears that the bacteria in the mouth gets absorbed into the bloodstream, researchers are still working on finding more concrete evidence that tells the full story. How does one cause the other? How likely will gum disease lead to developing heart-related complications and diseases? Can treating one result in the treatment of the other? These questions remain unanswered.

Statistics on Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death. More than 17.3 million deaths each year are attributed to heart disease and that number is expected to grow to more than 23.6 million by 2030, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Heart disease is also the number one killer in women. Approximately 750,000 Americans experience a heart attack each year, about 116,000 of which die. About 550,000 Americans have a first-time heart attack each year and about 200,000 have recurrent heart attacks.

Heart disease also includes stroke and sudden cardiac arrest. Strokes cause one of every 20 deaths in the U.S. and are the leading cause of disability. It is also the second-leading global cause of death, accounting for 11.8% of total deaths worldwide. In the United States, stroke is the number five cause of death, killing approximately 129,000 Americans. That equates to about one person every four minutes, and someone in the U.S. has a stroke about once every 40 seconds.

Other Notable Statistics

Did you know that nearly one of every three Americans has high levels of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" kind)?

According to the AHA, about 43% of Americans have total cholesterol higher than 200 mg/dL. And about 13% have total cholesterol over 240 mg/dL.

Blood pressure is also an issue for a significant percentage of the population. About 33% of American adults, approximately 80 million, have high blood pressure. Nearly half of the people with high blood pressure do not have it under control.

Diabetes affects about 9% of the American adult population (approximately 21 million), but experts say that about 35% of Americans (anywhere from 60 to 80 million) have pre-diabetes, a condition where the blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but still within the normal range.

Types of Cardiovascular Disease

There are several types of cardiovascular disease and each type depends on the specific circumstances that led up to its development. Diseases of the heart, also called coronary artery disease, include atherosclerosis, heart failure, arrhythmia, and heart valve problems.


Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops when plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, causing a narrowing of the arteries and making it difficult for blood to flow. When a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow and cause a heart attack or stroke. When the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked by a blood clot, a heart attack can occur. And when a blood vessel that feeds the brain is blocked, a stroke can occur.

Heart Failure

Heart failure, also called congestive heart failure, is a type of cardiovascular disease that occurs when the heart fails to pump as much blood as it should. The heart doesn't stop pumping blood; it just doesn't pump blood well enough to maintain good heart health. And without proper treatment, this condition can worsen resulting in more serious heart-related complications.


Arrhythmia is an abnormal rhythm of the heart and can affect how well the heart performs and how much blood it can pump throughout the body. It can cause the heart to beat too slowly, too fast, or irregularly. Arrhythmia is a component in congestive heart failure.

Heart Valve Problems

How well the heart valves operate affects the flow of blood in the heart and the bloodstream. There are several conditions relating to valves including:

  • Stenosis - occurs when heart valves do not open enough to allow the blood to flow properly.

  • Regurgitation - occurs when the heart valves do not close properly and allow blood to leak through.

  • Mitral Valve Prolapse - occurs when the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber, causing the valves to close improperly and allowing blood to flow backward through the valve.  

Other conditions of the heart include sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when there is an abrupt loss of heart function, and the time and mode of death are unexpected. It can occur even when the person has not been diagnosed with heart disease. According to the AHA, each year approximately 424,000 emergency medical services-treated out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in the United States.

Unfortunately, cardiac arrest strikes immediately and without warning. The primary sign of cardiac arrest is sudden loss of responsiveness where the person does not respond to tapping on the shoulders and does nothing when you ask if he's ok.

The AHA offers the following suggestions on what to do when someone you are with experiences cardiac arrest:

  • Yell for Help. If alone, call 911 and get an automated external defibrillator (AED). If other people are present, tell someone to call 911 and get an AED.

  • Check Breathing. Administer CPR if the person is not breathing or is only gasping.

  • Push Hard and Push Fast. Use an AED as soon as it arrives by turning it on and following the prompt.

  • Keep Pushing. Administer CPR until the person starts to breathe or move or when someone with more advanced training takes over.

Other Health Concerns Associated with Heart Health

During prolonged cardiac arrest, the brain, kidneys, lungs or liver do not receive the proper amount of blood and may become damaged as a result. Tachycardias (fast heart rate) can also cause serious injury to other organs. There are three types of tachycardias:

  • Atrial or Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT)

  • Sinus Tachycardia

  • Ventricular Tachycardia

SVT occurs when electrical signals in the heart's upper chambers fire abnormally. This interferes with electrical signals coming from the sinoatrial (SA) node which is the heart's natural pacemaker. A series of early beats in the atria speeds up the heart rate. The rapid heartbeat does not allow enough time for the heart to fill before it contracts, so blood flow to the rest of the body is compromised. In extreme cases, it can cause unconsciousness and cardiac arrest.

SVT is the most common type of arrhythmia in children. It is also more common in women, anxious young people, people who are physically fatigued, people who drink large amounts of coffee or alcohol, and heavy smokers. Symptoms may include dizziness, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat or palpitations, angina (chest pain), and shortness of breath.

Sinus tachycardia occurs when the heart beats faster than normal but is still steady. The sinoatrial node sends out electrical signals faster than usual. It may be your body's response to certain conditions including fever, anxiety, some medicinal and street drugs, severe emotional distress, fright, and strenuous exercise. It may also indicate anemia (low blood count), increased thyroid activity, heart muscle damage from heart attack or heart failure, and hemorrhage (severe bleeding). Treatment should be focused on the cause of sinus tachycardia rather than the condition itself.

Ventricular tachycardia occurs when the fast heart rate starts in the lower chambers of the heart called the ventricles. It can be life-threatening and requires rapid diagnosis and treatment. This condition does not allow enough time for the heart to fill with blood prior to it contracting. As a result, blood does not get pumped throughout the body. Causes may include lack of oxygen to areas of the heart due to lack of coronary artery blood flow; cardiomyopathy in which the structure of the heart becomes distorted; medications; and sarcoidosis which is an inflammatory disease affecting skin and other body tissues. Symptoms can include dizziness, lightheadedness, unconsciousness, and cardiac arrest.

Prevention Strategies

While maintaining proper dental care is important for dental health and overall health, unfortunately, there isn't enough evidence to suggest that treating gum disease will lessen the risk of heart attack or stroke.

And why isn't proper dental care enough to prevent heart disease?

Interestingly enough, according to the AHA, people of the 1920s thought that complete tooth extractions would result in better health and prevent heart disease. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Why?

There are so many factors that contribute to health conditions that simply taking one measure may not be enough to prevent it or even reduce the risk. Lessening the risk for heart disease involves not just good dental health (or removing the teeth), but also quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure, and staying physically active. Good health can only be achieved by taking appropriate measures in all areas of health, not just one.

The AHA's 2020 Impact Goal is to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and reduce deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent, by the year 2020. They call the risk factors for cardiovascular disease "Life's Simple 7". They are: not smoking, physical activity, healthy diet, body weight, and control of cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Everything experts have learned about heart health underscores the importance of maintaining a healthy balanced diet, healthy weight, healthy blood pressure, an effective fitness routine, and good oral hygiene.

And what studies have shown about how dental health impacts overall health highlights the importance of proper dental care and treating gum disease right away. Keeping up with routine dental visits can help prevent health conditions associated with dental health. As researchers have discovered, there is a correlation between gum disease and other health conditions including heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, pancreatic cancer, and pregnancy complications.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 2007 that stated that the incidence of atherosclerosis can be reduced within six months with aggressive treatment of gum disease. By supporting our bodies in significant ways through proper dental care and gingivitis treatment, we can start to see many health benefits.

A simple diet change to maintain a neutral pH balance [pH balance {link to article about pH levels in the mouth} in the mouth could very well be the ticket to good dental and general health, allowing your body a chance to fight against potential hazards like cancer and heart complications.

Proper dental care and regular dental visits with a dentist or licensed hygienist are also important for our dental and overall health. If you are looking for a new dentist, check out CarefreeDental's Find a Provider search.



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