When you go to the dentist, the doctor isn’t just assessing your teeth. The health of your mouth can be an indicator of larger, more serious issues. In fact, studies have proven a link exists between oral health and cardiovascular disease and increased risk of stroke.
Healthy smile, healthy heart?
“A comprehensive dental examination includes more than teeth,” says Dr. Howard Weiner, DMD with North Coast Dental Group. “A number of things will show themselves as changes in the soft tissues such as diabetes, auto-immune disorders, leukemia and other blood diseases and more.”
When it comes to cardiovascular disease, Weiner says the link between this and oral health is not fully understood. What researchers do know is that the link is not a cause and effect, but a co-factor.
According to Weiner, there are several theories. “It seems to be related to the body’s immune system,” he says. “Periodontal disease is an indication of an activated immune system. The body is trying to fight bacteria that is causing periodontal disease. The activation of the immune system may be contributing to the formation of the plaque on the vascular system.”
An activated immune system is not a bad thing. Allergies, getting the flu, even cutting your skin turns on your immune system. It does its job of healing then relaxes. However, periodontal disease has an extremely chronic nature and the immune system remains activated.
“There are other theories,” Weiner says. “The bacteria that causes periodontal disease may release toxins into the bloodstream that contribute to cardiovascular disease.”
Weiner explains that anything placing additional stress on the immune system such as diet, stress or elevated cholesterol levels can be contributors. If you have significant periodontal disease you should be evaluated for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Treating your periodontal disease will not eliminate your cardiovascular disease. However, it is helpful to remove any contributing factors to reduce your risk. Getting to the dentist for an evaluation is a good place to start.
Prevention starts young
“There is a common misperception that dentists are just looking at teeth,” says Dr. Ritu Shah, DMD at North Coast Dental Group and certified in pediatric dentistry. “Kids’ mouths tend to be healthier but the same issues as adults can pop up.”
Shah encourages caregivers to start bringing their children to see a dentist as early as possible, usually around their first birthday. Starting the relationship early helps eliminate the possible fear associated with the dentist, an inhibiting factor for children and adults.
In addition to seeing the dentist, Shah emphasizes the importance of establishing a daily routine of oral care at home. Just as you insist on your child eating healthy meals, getting dressed and bathing, you should insist on brushing teeth.
“Make it fun,” Shah says. “There are a million types of brushes on the market. They light up, play songs, have theme characters. And there are as many different types of toothpaste – mango, bubblegum, strawberry, mint, orange, cinnamon. It may take time but it’s worth it.”
Finally, as an adult, don’t forget to do these things yourself. It models good oral health behavior to your kids, while also benefitting you, your health and quality of life. Certainly, that is something to smile about.