The truth about gum disease and heart health
THE JURY’S STILL OUT, BUT STUDIES ARE POINTING TO A LINK BETWEEN GUM DISEASE AND HEART HEALTH. LINDA MUSIC HELPS YOU BRUSH UP ON THE FACTS
Over the past few years there has been considerable hype about the correlation between gum health and heart disease. Many scientific studies have shown significant correlations, but not everyone is convinced.
‘it may be that having gum disease is just a marker for increased risk of also having a systemic illness’
‘Going to your dentist won’t fix your heart problems’
In 2016 a Swedish study examined 805 patients under the age of 75 who had suffered their first acute myocardial infarction (AMI), also known as a heart attack. The study also examined 805 matched controls who had no history of heart problems. Gum disease was more common in patients who had had a heart attack than in the control group. In fact, the study concluded that there was a 49 per cent increased risk of AMI among the patients with periodontitis (gum disease). Even after the researchers made adjustments for other variables, such as smoking, the risk remained significantly higher (29 per cent).
While statistics like these may have you heading straight to your dentist in the hope of fixing your heart, it’s not as simple as that. In 2017, Chinese researchers looked at 22 research studies into the link between gum disease and heart disease. Across the 22 studies, results from a total of 129,630 participants were analysed. While the research showed gum disease is associated with an increased risk of future heart disease, a causative relationship between the two could not be established.
Dr Fritz Heitz, president of the Australian Society of Periodontology, agrees. Heitz argues that just because there are statistical correlations between the two diseases, it does not mean periodontitis causes heart disease or vice versa. Neither does it mean that fixing one disease will fix the other.
“Going to your dentist or a periodontist won’t fix your heart problems,” says Heitz.
The Australian and
New Zealand Academy of Periodontists holds a similar view. Despite research showing an association between gum disease and heart disease, they stress the nature of this link is not clear. They explain that heart disease could be caused
(at least in part) by gum disease or
“it may be that having gum disease is just a marker for increased risk of also having a systemic illness”.
Heitz says the reason gum disease is often seen in people with heart disease may be because both conditions are inflammatory in nature.
“Rather than a direct causal link, what I suspect is that there may be a third factor that predisposes you to both diseases. That third factor is a predisposition to a hyper-inflammatory state,” says Heitz. He explains that it isn’t the bacteria directly that cause gum disease but rather how the body reacts to the presence of these bacteria (see box, right). “It is the body’s own over-excitable inflammatory response that causes gum disease,” he argues.