The following article was contributed by Michael D. Weitzner, DMD, MS, Vice President UnitedHealthcare Dentaland Linda Chous, O.D., Chief Eye Care Officer, UnitedHealthcare
It’s American Heart Month, which means you’re probably hearing a lot of tips about heart-healthy diets and exercise, but did you know that your oral and eye health are also important for your heart health?
There is growing evidence suggesting that gum disease may increase your risk of heart disease, and in many instances, your eye doctor may be the first to see signs of conditions related to heart disease.
Heart disease risks include smoking, obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. All of these risks often damage the blood vessels, which are often detected at late stages when they are difficult to reverse.
But cardiovascular disease also can damage blood vessels inside the eye, which an eye doctor giving an eye exam may be able to detect sooner and monitor the progress of the disease.
According to the Harvard Heart Letter, several studies have revealed that people with changes in their retinal blood vessels from high blood pressure are significantly more likely to have strokes and heart attacks. These individuals are also at higher risk of developing vascular strokes within the eye that lead to blindness.
Your eye doctor can alert your physician and encourage you to seek appropriate treatment if they spot trouble with your retinal blood vessels.
How can gum disease affect the heart?
Several theories exist to explain the link between gum disease and heart disease. For example, periodontal diseases are infections of the gums that are often caused by the bacteria found in plaque.
Oral bacteria found in plaque can affect the heart when they enter the blood stream, attaching to fatty plaques in the coronary arteries (heart blood vessels) and contributing to clot formation. Blood clots can obstruct normal blood flow, restricting the amount of nutrients and oxygen required for the heart to function properly.
Another possibility is that the inflammations caused by gum disease increases plaque build-up, which may contribute to swelling of the arteries. Eliminating dental plaque may be an important step in preventing gum diseases and coronary artery disease, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Periodontology.
What can you do to keep yourself healthy?
In addition to following the advice of your physician, eye doctor, dentist and periodontist, you can also take the following steps to keep your eyes, teeth and gums healthy:
- get regular eye exams even if you think your vision is fine;
- brush after each meal and snack, using a soft bristle toothbrush;
- use dental floss at least once a day;
- have your teeth professionally cleaned on a regular basis, twice a year for most patients, although if you have gum disease, more frequent cleanings might be suggested;
- ask your dentist about treatments such as scaling, a deep cleaning (root planing) or gum treatment if you are diagnosed with periodontal disease;
- tell your dentist and eye doctor if you have heart disease;
- if you smoke, work with your physician to try to quit.
Good dental and vision habits are not only the way to a healthy mouth, but also a healthy heart.