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What your dentist could tell you about your heart health

A dentist looks in a man's mouth with a dental hygienist in the background.

Hey, Doc. While you're in there, how does my heart look?

Oct. 15, 2019—Having a healthy mouth may do more than brighten your smile. It could lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke. That's because people with gum disease are more likely to have high blood pressure, according to a new study.

Researchers reviewed the results of 81 studies. They found that the more severe gum disease is, the higher the risk of high blood pressure.

People with moderate-to-severe gum disease had a 22% raised risk. People with severe gum disease had a 49% higher risk.

Two widespread problems

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of adults 30 and older in the U.S. have gum disease. And almost half of Americans have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association, though many don't know it. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack, stroke or other serious health problems.

Researchers found that systolic pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading) was an average of 4.5 mm Hg higher for those with gum disease than for those without it. That might not seem like a lot. But just a five-point rise in systolic pressure has been tied to a 25% higher risk of fatal heart attack or stroke, the researchers said.

The common thread

What's the link between gum disease and high blood pressure? Researchers suspect it's inflammation. In gum disease, the tissues that support the teeth become infected, red and swollen. One possibility is that infected gums may trigger inflammation in other parts of the body too. That could harm blood vessels that feed the heart and other organs.

Or it could be that some people develop gum disease and high blood pressure because they are simply more prone to the conditions—or because they have risk factors, like smoking, that put them at risk for both.

More research is needed to find out if treating gum disease might bring down high blood pressure—and vice versa.

But in the meantime, if your dentist says you have gum disease, it's worthwhile to keep a close eye on your blood pressure too.

The study appeared in Cardiovascular Research.

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