For decades, the answer has been “yes,” and we’ve all been urged to brush and floss regularly. But now some researchers say there’s just one problem: After reviewing more than 500 studies on the connection between the two diseases, they can’t find any conclusive evidence that there really is a causal link.
An American Heart Association expert panel of cardiologists, dentists and infectious disease specialists found that, while inflammation from gum disease can affect blood vessels, it’s unlikely that it causes heart disease.
If there was a direct cause-and-effect connection, it would have shown up in this review, says Peter Lockhart, D.D.S., chairman of the department of oral medicine at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., and co-chair of the committee.
The problem with many of the studies, Lockhart explains, is that the same risk factors that contribute to infected gums — such as smoking, obesity and diabetes — also contribute to heart disease. But that doesn’t mean that one disease leads to the other.
“So, while a patient may have gum disease and heart disease, there is no proof that one causes the other or that treating gum disease will decrease the likelihood of heart disease,” he says.
But other dentists feel there is reason for concern.
Says Pamela McClain, D.D.S., president of the American Academy of Periodontology (dentists who specialize in treating gum disease) and a periodontist in Aurora, Colo., “Even if you eliminate all the other risk factors,” gum disease is still linked to heart disease. While the evidence may not point to cause and effect, “there is still an independent association between these two diseases,” she says. “That’s a very important finding.”
Debate aside, brushing and flossing is still important, Lockhart says, for the sake of your teeth, gums and breath.
Whether gum disease can affect the heart, “it still can be dangerous” for other reasons, he warns. Infected, inflamed gums are the primary reason the majority of adults lose their teeth.
The paper appears as a scientific statement and was published online April 18 in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.
Also of interest: Foods that whiten teeth naturally.