Bacteria from the mouth can cause blood clots and lead to serious hearts problems if it enters the bloodstream, studies indicate.
In a study published in 2018, researchers analyzed data from nearly a million people who experienced more than 65,000 cardiovascular events (including heart attack) and found that after accounting for age, there was a moderate correlation between poor oral health and coronary heart disease.
How are heart disease and poor oral health connected?
A number of theories have been proposed, including:
- The bacteria that cause gingivitis and periodontitis also travel to blood vessels elsewhere in the body where they cause blood vessel inflammation and damage. Tiny blood clots, heart attack and stroke may follow. Supporting this theory is the finding of remnants of oral bacteria within atherosclerotic blood vessels far away from the mouth.
- Rather than bacteria causing the problem, it’s the body’s immune response – inflammation – that sets off a cascade of vascular damage throughout the body, including the heart and brain.
- Other potential theories include poor access to healthcare and lack of exercise. Perhaps people who don’t have access to health insurance or who don’t take good care of their overall health are more likely to have poor oral health and heart disease.
According to an article from The Mayo Clinic, studies have shown:
- Gum disease (periodontitis) is associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease.
- Poor dental health increases the risk of a bacterial infection in the blood stream, which can affect the heart valves. Oral health may be particularly important if you have artificial heart valves.
- Tooth loss patterns are connected to coronary artery disease.
- There is a strong connection between diabetes and cardiovascular disease and also evidence that people with diabetes benefit from periodontal treatment.
How it happens
From Science Daily: Plaque-causing bacteria from the mouth can travel into the bloodstream and increase your risk of heart attack, says a scientist at the Society for General Microbiology. Professor Howard Jenkinson, from the University of Bristol explains how oral bacteria can wreak havoc if they are not kept in check by regular brushing and flossing. “Poor dental hygiene can lead to bleeding gums, providing bacteria with an escape route into the bloodstream, where they can initiate blood clots leading to heart disease,” he said.
Streptococcus bacteria commonly live in the mouth, confined within communities termed “biofilms” and are responsible for causing tooth plaque and gum disease. The University of Bristol researchers, in collaboration with scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), have shown that once let loose in the bloodstream, Streptococcus bacteria can use a protein on their surface, called PadA, as a weapon to force platelets in the blood to bind together and form clots.
Introducing blood clots is a selfish trick used by bacteria, as Professor Jenkinson points out. “When the platelets clump together, they completely encase the bacteria. This provides a protective cover not only from the immune system, but also from antibiotics that might be used to treat infection,” he said. “Unfortunately, as well as helping out the bacteria, platelet clumping can cause small blood clots, growths on the heart valves (endocarditis), or inflammation of blood vessels that can block the blood supply to the heart and brain.”
But… that’s not all!
The connection between poor oral health and overall health may not be limited to cardiovascular disease. Studies have also linked periodontal disease (especially if due to infection with a bacterium called porphyromonas gingivalis) to rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, a 2018 study found a link between this same bacterium and risk of pancreatic cancer. However, (as in the case of the connection with heart disease), an “association” is not the same as causation; we still need additional research to fully understand the importance of these observations. But this consistent association between them, is good reason to take good care of your teeth and gums:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day.
- Floss daily.
- Schedule regular dental checkups and cleanings.
Stand by for more studies on the link between oral health and overall health. Until then, keep brushing, flossing and seeing your dentist.