October is National Dental Hygiene Month, which honors the work of a potentially lifesaving member of your heart-attack-and-stroke prevention team: your dental provider. Recent research links poor oral health to increased risk for many deadly disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD), the leading killer of Americans.

Conversely, people who take excellent care of their teeth and gums and get regular dental care live longer, compared to those who neglect their oral health, according to a large study of older adults. That is a great reason to schedule a dental checkup and brush up on the best ways to optimize your oral health. Use these BaleDoneen Method recommendations to safeguard your smile—and your arterial health.

Get Checked for Gum Disease

Periodontal disease (PD) affects the majority of U.S. adults over age 30, many of whom don’t know they have a serious oral infection that can lead to tooth loss, if untreated. Also known as gum disease, PD often has no obvious symptoms in the early stages. Warning signs include red, swollen or tender gums, bleeding while brushing or flossing, receding gums, loose or sensitive teeth and persistent bad breath.

To find out if you have gum disease, ask your dental provider to do a painless exam, using a mirror and periodontal probe to check for signs of oral infection. If you have PD, treatments include deep cleaning, a daily program of oral care to follow at home, prescription mouthwashes, dental trays with antibacterial gel, and in some cases, a short course of oral antibiotics. Early diagnosis and optimal dental care are crucial if you have PD, which has recently been linked to the following health threats:

  • Heart attacks and strokes. People with periodontitis are more than twice as likely to suffer heart attacks—and have up to triple the risk for stroke—compared to those with healthy gums. A landmark peer-reviewed BaleDoneen study explains why. The research, published in Postgraduate Medical Journal (PMJ), was the first to identify PD due to high-risk oral bacteria as a contributing cause of arterial disease (plaque). These bacterial villains often enter the bloodstream and inflame plaque in the arteries, leading to blood clots that can trigger heart attacks and strokes.
  • Alzheimer’s disease. Having chronic gum inflammation (periodontitis) for ten or more years is associated with a 70% higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study of patients ages 50 or older with gum disease. “Our findings support the notion that infectious diseases associated with low-grade inflammation, such as chronic periodontitis, may play a substantial role in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease,” the study team concluded.
  • Women with gum disease have triple the risk for esophageal cancer and to a lesser extent, increased risk for breast, lung, gallbladder and melanoma skin cancer, compared those without PD, even if they don’t smoke, researchers reported in August. The study included 65,869 postmenopausal women ages 54 to 86 whose health was tracked for up to 15 years. The researchers theorize that cancer-causing pathogens in the mouth may spread to other parts of the body through the blood and/or swallowed saliva.
  • People with diabetes have higher rates of PD than non-diabetics, with those who don’t have their blood sugar under control being at especially high risk. That’s probably because people with diabetes are more vulnerable to infections, but the relationship between PD and diabetes goes both ways. Severe PD can increase blood sugar, which in turn puts people with diabetes at increased risk for other complications of their disease, the American Academy of Periodontology reports.

What Are the Best Ways to Protect Your Oral Health?

If you use nicotine in any form, here’s even more motivation to snuff out the habit: It’s a leading risk for developing gum disease. We also advise these measures to optimize your oral health:

  • Brush and floss twice a day. Although you may have seen headlines claiming that there’s not much science to support flossing,in a nine-year study of 5,611 older adults, people who never flossed had a 30% higher death rate than those who flossed daily.
  • Go to bed with a clean mouth. The study found that never brushing at night raised mortality risk by 25%, versus nightly brushing. Since your mouth produces less saliva to wash your teeth and gums when you’re sleeping, it’s particularly crucial to floss and brush thoroughly before bed. We recommend using a sonic toothbrush for the best results.
  • Get a dental cleaning every 3 months, or as advised by your dental provider. The study also found that people who hadn’t gone to a dentist in the previous year had a 50% higher death rate than those who went two or more times annually, leading the researchers to conclude that good oral health promotes longevity by helping people avoid lethal systemic diseases sparked by infections and chronic inflammation, such as CVD.
  • Share our PMJ study with your dentist and hygienist. Because this science is so new, your dental provider may not be aware of it. Download or read the study online at http://pmj.bmj.com/content/93/1098/215?etoc. Use it to encourage him or her to join your heart-attack-and-stroke prevention team!