No proof gum disease causes heart problems

The claim that gum disease is linked to heart problems or strokes doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny, the American Heart Association says.

The claim that gum disease is linked to heart problems or strokes doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny, the American Heart Association says.

For 20 years, researchers have reported a potential link between gum disease and atherosclerotic heart disease from hardening of the arteries or stroke.

"The message sent out by some in health-care professions, that heart attack and stroke are directly linked to gum disease, can distort the facts, alarm patients and perhaps shift the focus on prevention away from well-known risk factors for these diseases," said Dr. Peter Lockhart, a professor and chair of oral medicine at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.

Lockhart wrote the heart group's new position statement in the journal Circulation.

The statement was prepared after a three-year analysis of about 600 studies by an expert panel led by a dentist and a cardiologist.

Keeping teeth and gums healthy remain important for overall health. (Matthew G. Fisher/American Heart Association)

Books and medical websites, including Canadian ones, say that periodontal disease is a risk factor based on small observational studies.

But gum disease hasn't been proved to cause heart disease, and treating gum disease hasn’t been proved to prevent heart disease or stroke, according to the group.

Statements that imply a cause and effect relationship between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease, or claim that dental treatment may prevent heart attack or stroke, are "unwarranted," the panel concluded.

Treating gum disease

Both gum disease, known formally as periodontal disease, and cardiovascular disease produce markers of inflammation.

The two types of disease also share common risk factors such as cigarette smoking, age and Type 2 diabetes.

The studies pointing to a link were not designed well enough to find more than an association, Lockhart said.

Keeping teeth and gums healthy remain important for overall health. Experts agree that those having either type of disease need to be treated.

Most Canadians will suffer the swollen, bleeding gums caused by gum disease at some point.

Gum disease can also contribute to other health conditions, said Dr. Robert MacGregor, president of the Canadian Dental Association.

"Pneumonia in senior citizens," MacGregor said. "Senior citizens can aspirate bacteria from their mouth into their lungs and that can result in pnuemonia. The other health risk that we've long known in dentistry is association between periodontal disease and diabetes. Again, that's not a cause and effect but periodontal disease can exacerbates diabetes."

MacGrego's advice for a healthy mouth and heart remains eating right, not smoking and exercising.


With files from CBC's Joan Leishman