As the leading cause of death in both men and women, there’s no shortage of ways that heart disease can take its toll—from heart attacks to stroke. So, when it comes to living your healthiest life, keeping up your cardiovascular health is paramount. Now, experts are warning that many people neglect to do one thing before bed which may affect their heart health. Read on to find out which nightly habit is a heart health must, and why some people are at greater risk of a problem.
Brushing and flossing your teeth is a simple and effective way to keep bacteria at bay. “Without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease,” explains the Mayo Clinic.
However, insufficient brushing and flossing is not just linked with poor oral hygiene, but also with various health problems. Several of these may affect your heart, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Though more research is needed to determine the exact relationship between heart health, several studies have shown that poor oral health is linked with higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
Harvard experts theorize that this could be because “the bacteria that infect the gums and 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 idea is the finding of remnants of oral bacteria within atherosclerotic blood vessels far from the mouth.” Another theory shared by the Harvard site suggests that “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.”
It’s important to note that “taking care of your teeth isn’t a proven way to prevent heart disease,” Thomas Salinas, DDS, a Mayo Clinic dentist writes. “Poor oral health has been debated as a possible cause of heart disease for many years. In 2012, experts from the American Heart Association reviewed the available scientific evidence and concluded that poor oral health hasn’t been proven to cause heart disease—and that treating existing gum disease hasn’t been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease,” he explains on behalf of the Clinic.
If in fact the relationship isn’t causal, Harvard Health says “the reason they may occur together is that there is a third factor (such as smoking) that’s a risk factor for both conditions.” They go on to explain that “other potential ‘confounders’ include poor access to healthcare and lack of exercise—perhaps people without health insurance or who don’t take good care of their overall health are more likely to have poor oral health and heart disease.”
Researchers are working to clarify the link between oral health and heart health, but in the meantime, many suggest erring on the side of caution by brushing and flossing regularly. “Increasing evidence suggests they may be closely linked,” write experts from Penn Medicine.
While it’s important for everyone to practice good oral health and hygiene, it’s especially important for those with heart disease of the blood vessels or high blood pressure, Penn experts add. “Inflammation can be linked to many different reasons and sources. That’s why it’s hard to definitively prove it’s just one thing,” writes Marietta Ambrose, MD, MPH, FACC, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“For people with heart disease of blood vessels, inflammation caused by gum disease can add to that process,” said Ambrose. “The risk is even greater when high cholesterol is added to the mix. Researchers have uncovered oral bacteria in the fatty deposits of people with atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries. Untreated, those deposits can narrow arteries or break loose and clog them, causing a heart attack or stroke.”
Besides cardiovascular disease, oral hygiene has also been linked to several other chronic health conditions. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that severe tooth loss is 50 percent more common in individuals with asthma, diabetes, emphysema, liver conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke history, and poor overall health.
Speak with your doctor or dentist if you notice signs of poor oral health—especially if you believe you have any other underlying conditions. And of course, make brushing and flossing part of your routine every night before bed—it might just boost your heart health.