“I would never have thought I could have been staring death in the face because of such a minor problem.”
Fortunately, Helen Bolton from Cornwall in the UK survived thanks to an 11½ hour operation just a couple of months ago — December, 2016.
The seemingly trivial concern that nearly killed her was a tiny cyst in her mouth. Untreated, it led to infective endocarditis, a potentially fatal heart condition.
So, what’s going on in your mouth that might be killing you?
Many health concerns throughout the body have been linked to the well-being of the mouth. It’s absolutely vital to maintain the integrity of your teeth and gums.
Gum Disease Linked to Heart Disease
The idea that oral infections could be a cause of diseases in other parts of the body was first proposed by dentist Willoughby D. Miller in 1891.
At first, the idea caught on as both doctors and dentists recommended tooth extraction as a way to prevent systemic diseases (chronic, long-term diseases that affect the entire body). For instance, it was fairly common for rheumatologists to recommend teeth removal as a treatment for arthritis.
Eventually this idea was considered irrational and lacking in evidence. It fell out of favor for nearly four decades, until the British Medical Journal published a landmark paper by Finnish doctors in 1989.
The doctors compared 100 heart attack patients under age 65 with a similar number of people free of heart disease. They found that the dental health of the heart attack group was considerably worse, even after taking a number of factors into consideration that could bias the findings.
This was followed by another study of nearly 10,000 participants published in the same journal in 1993. The researchers found that the people with gum disease (periodontitis) had a 25% increased risk of coronary heart disease compared to those with no or minimal gum disease.
In 1996, Dr. Steven Offenbacher from the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry proposed that an entirely new discipline be established called Periodontal Medicine, dedicated to studying the relationship between oral disease and systemic health problems.
Mouth Micro-Organisms Enter The Blood Stream
Red, swollen and bleeding gums are the symptoms of gingivitis. The disease is reversible, but if untreated it can progress to periodontitis, a much more serious condition.
In periodontitis, bacterial bioflim (dental plaque) — a sticky, colorless layer constantly formed on the teeth — builds up, causing not only gum but even bone tissue to decay. The bacteria and toxins produced grow and spread below the gum line, stimulating chronic inflammation and loosening of the teeth.
While connective tissues and blood capillaries maintain an intact barrier in a healthy mouth, in the disease process in periodontitis and gingivitis, the tissues become ulcerated, allowing direct entry of the bacteria into the circulating blood.
These bacteria, together with the toxins they create and the inflammatory immune compounds that the body produces in response, are now free to cause long-term harm throughout the body.
Gum Disease Linked to a Wide Range of Health Problems
There are now over 500 scientific papers that have proposed a connection between gum disease and heart disease.
Likewise, periodontal disease is considered a risk-factor for. . .
- pre-term low birth weight babies
- respiratory infections
- rheumatoid arthritis
- erectile dysfunction
- gastrointestinal disease
- kidney diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
These connections are alarming when you consider that up to nine out of ten people worldwide are troubled by periodontal disease, including nearly half of American adults over the age of 30.
Look After Your Teeth
In spite of all the evidence, the American Heart Association (AHA) felt compelled to issue a statement in 2012 to say that, while there is a connection, no conclusive evidence exists to show that gum disease can cause heart attacks or strokes.
They were clearly not impressed by the existing body of research, nor by a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 which showed that aggressively treating gum disease improved endothelial function, the lining of the blood vessels. Endothelial dysfunction occurs early in the process of arterial disease.
One of the AHA’s own journals, Circulation, published a study in 2016 that included more than 800 patients. It clearly demonstrated that gum disease increased the risk of a first heart attack by almost 50%.
It’s hard to know what would convince AHA officials to change their minds, so don’t hold your breath. Apparently, they set the bar for evidence very high. I would agree that gum disease probably isn’t the sole or even the principal cause of heart disease. There are other factors involved.
Still, more than two-and-a-half decades of research studies are enough to persuade me that oral hygiene is important not just for your teeth and gums but for your entire body.
Besides the heart connection, my work in alternative cancer treatments has also turned up plenty of anecdotal evidence that problems with the teeth and gums contribute to cancer. The evidence suggests to me that gum disease is a major cause of system-wide inflammation.
So do make sure you brush and clean between the teeth twice daily, and visit a dentist regularly. It could save your life.