Gum disease might seem like it’s a disease of the mouth, but it’s really a disease of the entire body. Gum disease is a chronic infection of the mouth, and nearly everything that enters the body goes through the mouth. Food, air, and blood all have the potential to spread the impact of gum disease throughout your body.
One of the most serious impacts of gum disease is an increased risk of heart problems. Now a new study has given more power to the theories linking these two conditions. With data from nearly 800,000 people for over ten years, this is one of the largest, longest studies to show a link, in this case an increased risk of atrial fibrillation.
Understanding Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. The atria are supposed to take blood into the heart and push it into the ventricles. The ventricles then send blood out of the heart. When people develop atrial fibrillation, the beats of the atria are inefficient, and blood pools in the atria.
Over time, atrial fibrillation can lead to more serious risks such as blood clots, stroke, and even heart failure. If you have atrial fibrillation, you may not notice any symptoms. However, you may have some symptoms, such as weakness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort.
How Strong Is the Connection with Gum Disease?
Researchers started this study by recruiting 393,745 people with gum disease, and the same number without in 1999-2000. Then they looked at hospital admissions from 1999-2010 to determine how many people in each group developed atrial fibrillation.
The data showed that in raw terms, people with gum disease were 11% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. But after correcting for various risk factors, they found that the true level of risk was 30% higher for people with gum disease. The increased risk was also found in all areas of the population, except for people who had hyperthyroidism or sleep apnea, whose specific risk factors cancelled out the partial risk from gum disease.
With the size of this study (nearly 8 million patient-years!), there’s good reason to take this study seriously.
How Does Gum Disease Cause Heart Problems?
We understand that it’s hard to see how gum disease can lead to heart problems. This study shows us that the two are likely linked (and other studies lead us to believe the link is causal: gum disease causes heart disease). But how?
Most likely, the link between the two is systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation occurs when your body is trying to fight disease. Your immune system releases chemicals to try to fight infection and heal the body. Over the short term, these chemicals are good for the body, but when released over the long term, they can have very serious health effects.
Atrial fibrillation has already been linked to systemic inflammation, and other likely effects of gum disease (such as increased cancer risk) are also probably linked to systemic inflammation. But preventive care and gum treatment can reduce these risks.