You may have heard that tooth decay can lead to heart disease. It’s quite a frightening proposition, considering the prevalence of both tooth decay and heart disease in the United States. While it’s not common, there is plenty of truth that tooth decay, such as cavities and gum disease can eventually lead to heart problems. At the same time there is quite a bit of misunderstanding at what precisely this means. Getting to the facts can require a bit of sifting through a bunch of media sensationalism. No, getting a cavity will not lead to a heart attack. It doesn’t work like that. What can happen is more complicated process and one that happens over a considerable amount of time,
Let’s start at the origins of the problem. In an overwhelmingly vast majority, tooth decay is a slow process. Because it’s so slow, it’s easily caught by dentists and dental care specialists before it become a serious issue. Of course, in order to catch tooth decay, a visit to the dentist is required. And that’s the problem.
If tooth decay is allowed to advance, the bacteria normally present on the surface of your teeth and gums can become embedded in the tooth. Essentially, as a cavity gets worse, and gets deeper, it will eventually work its way through the surface of the tooth, the enamel, then through the dentine, and finally the core—the pulp. Once it hits the pulp, this is where it can get very serious.
Not only will the cavity require more serious treatment to repair (such as a root canal), depending on the severity, but at this point that bacteria can enter the bloodstream. Right now, the connection between this bacteria and its effect on the heart isn’t completely understood. That is to say, it’s not clear what the bacteria is doing that seemingly causes or exacerbates heart disease, since there are a number of factors at play.
One thing that appears to be happening is the bacteria increases plaque into the bloodstream, which then results in constricted or blocked arteries. Keep in mind that the plaque found on the tooth and the plaque found in your arteries are not related. However, this dental plaque can enter the bloodstream. Once it’s there though, along with the bacteria, it’s not understood what happens. One of the leading theories is the bacteria simply accumulates and sticks to plaque, which then may worsen a pre-existing arterial or heart condition (if it doesn’t contribute to the development of a previously non-existent heart condition).
All that’s known at this point is there does seem to be a connection to oral bacteria and heart disease, as very specific strains of bacteria previously only found in the mouth have been found in the bloodstream of patients experience a significant degree of tooth decay (along with heart disease). Research into the connection is ongoing, and it’s worth keeping up on. Just remember, this is something that is completely preventable and it’s not something you need to go around worrying about, regardless of the headlines, because it comes down to one very simple fact: if tooth decay is caught early, it can be treated.