Hanging by a Thread: Flossing Your Teeth Can Save Your Life

Poor dental hygiene can not only destroy the first impression you make, but contrary to what was previously believed, oral hygiene and general health are strongly connected.

In fact, recent studies have shown that neglecting your dental care may also be damaging to your heart. Inflammation of the gums, a condition medically known as periodontal disease, is has been found to significantly increase the risk of the development and progression of heart disease.

Specifically, periodontal disease is being linked to coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries caused by deposits of fat and plaque onto the arterial walls. In severe cases, the arteries can become entirely blocked, leading to heart attacks. As the affected arteries are responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood to the heart, the narrowing of these vessels leads to strain and chest pains during periods of heightened activity.

Considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, finding a connection between it and inflammation of the gums could lead to a new approach in preventative cardiac medicine.

Many people are currently taking expensive medication to control their atherosclerosis, but perhaps the simplest preventative measure you can take is to visit the dentist regularly.

Periodontal disease is a condition in which the gums around the teeth become infected. This happens in response to plaque development, which irritates the gums and causes them to swell. According to Dr. Angelo Poulos, a dentist at Waterview Dental in Toronto, periodontal disease includes both gingivitis and periodontitis (a more severe progression of inflammation). The majority of the population has some degree of gingivitis, Dr. Poulos said.

It is not surprising that “gingivitis” is a commonly used term in the marketing of mouthwash. Although common, it is a condition that can lead to periodontitis if it is left untreated. During the development of gingivitis, bacteria causing the infection move underneath the gum line and attack the tissues and bone around the teeth. Larger pockets are formed underneath the gums in which more bacteria can grow. Thus, not only will this condition lead to painful gums and tooth loss, but it could lead to heart disease as well.

By moving underneath the gum line, the bacteria have an easy passage into the bloodstream, where they can also cause inflammation of the blood vessels, encouraging heart disease. To simplify, poor dental hygiene leads to inflamed gums which is basically giving dangerous bacteria an open door to enter the body.

Individuals who already have fatty deposits (plaque) in their blood vessels are more susceptible to this. Inflammation-causing bacteria attach themselves to the plaque where they cause inflammation and further narrowing of the vessels. By this stage the individual has developed heart disease and is in danger of a heart attack.

Studies have found that patients with severe periodontal disease are twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease, compared to patients who do not suffer from periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease is still a fairly general term. The inflammation can be caused by a host of different bacteria. The strongest dental predictor of heart disease, according to a recent study in the medical journal Circulation, is pericoronitis, infection of the gums around the molars. After pericoronitis, tooth decay-- where only the tip of the root remains--is the next strongest predictor of heart disease.

The third predictor is gingivitis. Even though pericoronitis is the strongest indicator, it initially begins as gingivitis.

“It seems that certain bacteria found in patients with periodontitis have also been detected in the artherosclerotic plaque of the heart vessels,” says Dr. Poulos. “Periodontitis in itself can lead to tooth loss if left untreated, which further increases the risk of introducing bacteria into the bloodstream.”

Saving your heart, and your life, may be as simple as brushing and flossing your teeth on a regular basis.

“Foul breath, bleeding gums, sensitive gums, and recessed gums are all signs that some level of disease or inflammation could exist," says Dr. Poulos. "A thorough evaluation by a dentist can determine whether some form of periodontitis is present, and what the best course of action is,” he said.

The risk of developing periodontal disease is also partially genetic. In fact, 30 percent of the population may be genetically more susceptible to gum disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.

Whether a person is more susceptible or not, the most basic tool against heart disease cost less than $3: floss and a toothbrush. By brushing and flossing twice a day, you can keep inflammatory bacteria, and heart disease, away.

Foxnews.com Health writer Christine Buske contributed to this report.

For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.