Q. Is there a link between heart health and gum disease?
A. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease. One study found that the presence of common problems in the mouth—including gum disease, cavities, and missing teeth—were as good at predicting heart disease as cholesterol levels, smoking, or weight.
“I am always happy to see new patients referred directly by physicians who are savvy enough to realize there is a link between a healthy heart and a healthy mouth,” says Dr. Stacy Roszkowski of Lifelong Dental Care in West St. Paul.
While it’s not known exactly why there’s a connection, one possibility is that bacteria from the mouth enters the bloodstream through the gums. The same bacteria have been found in artery plaques on the heart, so one theory is that these bacteria stick to the fatty plaques in the bloodstream, directly contributing to blockages.
Another possibility is related to inflammatory factors in the body. The bacteria that builds on your teeth can make your gums prone to infection, and one of the body’s natural responses to infection is inflammation. When oral bacteria travel through your body, they can also cause inflammation in the blood vessels and heart. Inflamed blood vessels allow less blood to travel between the heart and the rest of the body, narrowing the arteries, raising blood pressure, and increasing the risk of clots.
“A healthy, disease-free mouth can contribute to a healthier heart,” says Dr. Roszkowski.
While it’s important to clear up periodontal disease (often this can be done with better brushing and flossing habits), it’s especially important to control other heart disease risk factors (high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure), lose weight if you’re overweight, and quit smoking. According to the CDC, a smoker’s risk of severe gum disease is three times higher than someone who does not smoke.
Q. What foods help keep our teeth at optimum health?
A. “Foods that are low in sugar and low in acid are healthiest for your teeth,” says Dr. Roszkowski. “All foods can convert to carbohydrates and sugars on the teeth, which is why the best defense for healthy teeth is a healthy diet AND good brushing and flossing after meals and before bed.” Too much soda, too much juice, and foods that are highly acidic or sugary (candy) are a dentist’s greatest enemies.
“Fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts have antioxidants and nutrients which strengthen immunity and help fight bacteria and inflammation, helping to protect teeth and gums,” says Dr. Drew Spencer of Edina 5-0 Dental. “While dairy products, like milk and cheese, have calcium and Vitamin D to support bone growth and recharge tooth enamel.”
Chewing gum helps dislodge food particles that become lodged between your teeth and stimulate saliva production, helping to “scrub” teeth. Just make sure to choose a type—like Trident—with the sugar substitute xylitol. Unlike other sugar substitutes, xylitol can’t be broken down into an acid by bacteria in your mouth.
Other helpful tips when it comes to eating and drinking: don’t chew ice (it can lead to tiny cracks that can develop into serious problems down the road), drink through a straw, take it easy on the popcorn, drink green tea, and use water as a mouthwash after eating.
Q. What do I need to know about pregnancy and dental health?
A. All the changing hormone levels that occur with a pregnancy can actually make some dental problems worse. Make sure to tell your dentist that you are pregnant. Good daily care is crucial—brush twice a day with an American Dental Association (ADA)-approved fluoride toothpaste, floss once a day, limit between-meal snacks, and eat a balanced diet (a diet including milk, cheese, and yogurt is good for your baby’s developing teeth, gums, and bones).
Pay particular attention to any changes in your gums during pregnancy. If your gums are tender, swollen, or bleeding, talk with your dentist or periodontist as soon as possible.
“During pregnancy, hormones can surge, exaggerating the body’s normal response to plaque on your teeth,” explains Dr. Spencer. “If not removed effectively, the gum tissue can become irritated and swollen, causing a condition called pregnancy gingivitis. Left untreated, gingivitis can lead to periodontal disease.”
According to the American Pregnancy Association, if dental work needs to be done during pregnancy, the best time to schedule an appointment is the second trimester.
“Emergencies do happen, but the best way to avoid problems is to have a healthy mouth BEFORE you become pregnant. Prevention and routine care is always a good idea,” stresses Dr. Roszkowski.
Q. What are my options for replacing a missing tooth?
A. When a child loses a tooth, it’s usually regarded as a cause for celebration—another step towards growing up, complete with an overnight visit from the Tooth Fairy. A child will replace his or her baby teeth with adult teeth.
When you’re an adult and you lose a tooth, though, it’s not exactly a celebratory occasion.
Whether your tooth (or teeth) was knocked out in a sports injury or accident, or had to be extracted due to gum disease or decay, options for replacing the missing tooth include a dental implant, bridgework, or a removable partial denture.
In many cases, the implant is the best method for replacing a missing tooth. Since an implant isn’t attached to any surrounding teeth, you can floss and maintain it like your natural teeth, and it has the same chance to last a lifetime. The implant itself is made from materials that are compatible with the body, like titanium. It looks and feels like your lost tooth.
“A metal post is surgically placed into the bone beneath your gum tissue. It fuses to the bone in your jaw and acts like the root of the tooth. Then I mount a replacement tooth, or crown, on the implant to match the surrounding tooth,” says Dr. Spencer. “Also, implants can be used to anchor full or partial dentures to increase strength or retention.”
According to Dr. Roszkowski, more and more insurance companies are helping patients cover the cost of dental implants and crowns.
Q. What can I do if I’m self-conscious about my smile?
A. Life is too short to constantly hide your smile. Cosmetic dentistry is like a facelift that can reverse the natural aging process of the teeth.
Dr. Ned Windmiller of Windmiller Distinctive Dentistry—with offices in Stillwater and Wayzata—is included in a small group of dentists in Minnesota to be a member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD), and has given lectures around the world to other dentists regarding cosmetic dentistry and the natural smile.
A smile design consultation includes focusing on gaps and spaces, crooked or crowded teeth, chipped teeth, missing teeth, or old crowns or bridges. State-of-the-art computer imaging and digital radiography helps patients visualize the end result.
“My patients who receive a new smile say they smile more than they ever have before,” comments Dr. Ned Windmiller. “I think it’s not only because of their beautiful, natural-looking smile, but also the major boost of confidence they receive from it.”