You may have heard that there is a relationship between poor oral health and heart disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated that those with poor oral health are more likely to suffer from other health issues, such as heart disease in particular.
While this is a complex relationship, it can help to better understand this link by looking at an example of how this can work in your body.
Your oral cavity is a perfect place for bacteria. It is warm, moist and has a rather steady supply of food. There are billions and billions of them in your mouth and plenty of variety to be found there. While there are over 700 types of bacteria in your mouth, one of the most common families of bacteria are known as “streptococci” for the whole group, and “streptococcus” for a single type.
Before you freak out on these big Latin words, remember that most of them are just made up by scientists and often have very simple basic meanings. For example, “strep” comes from the Latin for “twisted” and “coccus” comes from the word for “seed.” And this is because the bacteria look like twisted seeds under a microscope!
Over millions of years, nature and evolution have worked together to form balanced systems that maintain your health. Even in your mouth (which is “open to the public” meaning that outer bacteria are entering all the time) the oral bacteria often work together to help maintain a healthy mouth.
For example, streptococcus mutans is the bacteria that is closely associated with tooth decay. Another type, streptococcus sanguinis, is also found in the mouth and it acts to balance the oral cavity and make the mouth less friendly to the “mutans” guys… so less cavities and gum disease.
Now, in order to do this, the “sanguinis” strain has to be able to bind to the tooth’s surface and do its job. (The “mutans” also binds to the teeth)
So, the ability to stick and bind is a survival plus for both the bacteria and for your teeth. This ability is all good and well in the mouth. But, if these bacteria pass into the blood system this can cause problems if they now stick to, and colonize, in locations such as your heart tissue and valves.
For simplicity, let's call this "bacterial travel" when bacteria move from the mouth (where they belong and where they might be doing good) into the blood. Then, once in the blood system, they can travel throughout the body and cause problems such as infections or chronic inflammation.
This bacterial travel is a common cause of infective endocarditis (another simple Latin word, “endo” means inside or interior and “carditis” has to do with the heart. So, it means something that is inside the heart.). The oral bacteria pass through the gums into the blood stream and travel around. If they settle into the lining of the heart or the heart valves then infection can occur and this can develop into a serious condition. Over time, serious consequences, such as congestive heart failure or strokes, are often the result.
Now, before you get too worried, keep in mind that for most healthy individuals this condition is rarely serious. This is not a sudden condition and not the result of a few lone bacteria making their way into your body. Most healthy individuals with strong immune systems can deal with these invaders without serious consequences. But, if the situation continues over a long period of time, as in the case of gum disease or tooth decay, the condition can prove dangerous.
Like many physical conditions involving inflammation or infection, the short-term effects are not normally serious. But, over time, the cumulative effects and bodily stresses can turn serious and even fatal.
Here, the problem starts with the passage of bacteria from the mouth into the blood system.
Sudden intrusions can occur as the result of an injury or dental surgery. However, events such as these would normally be quite treatable.
But there is quite a difference between these “one off” events and the long-term, chronic and persistent invasion connected to gum disease and tooth decay.
In this scenario, the natural protective barriers between the mouth and the blood stream weaken. The areas of decay and disease become mini dumps of infectious bacteria that slowly, but continually, leak into the blood system. The bacteria travels around the body which results in areas of infection, chronic inflammation and other immune system responses. Over time, this can lead to severe health problems and even death.
Keep in mind that the above example and layout have been greatly simplified for easy comprehension. This are very complex relationships but the attempt here has been to provide a general picture of how poor oral health can move beyond the mouth and promote bigger problems throughout the body.
One of the biggest dangers of poor oral health is that it is almost always a very slow process. It can take years of bad oral health to result in severe health problems. And so oral health is often ignored, or simply goes unnoticed, until long after the damage has been done.
Unlike Vegas, what happens in your mouth does not necessarily stay in your mouth. So take great care of your mouth today and your body will thank you for it tomorrow.