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Feb 15, 2011

More Evidence Links Red, Inflamed Gums to Heart Disease

Forgetting to brush and floss could hurt more than just your smile.

If you forget to brush and floss, your smile will show it. But did you know you might also hike your risk for cardiovascular disease?

A new study has found an important link between gum disease and plaque build-up in the arteries. That link is inflammation—and researchers have pictures to prove it.

The report was published in the Feb. 22 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

About 40 percent of adults in the United States have gum disease. For years scientists have noticed that people with serious gum disease were more likely to have heart disease. They’ve also known that inflammation plays an important role in causing dangerous cholesterol deposits in the arteries.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston decided to study whether there was a connection between inflamed gums and inflamed arteries. To do this they used an advanced type of imaging called FDG-PET.

This type of scan is especially good at finding inflammation in the body’s tissues. Simply put, the brighter the FDG signal on the scan, the more the inflammation.

The study involved 112 patients. Researchers analyzed the FDG-PET images, looking at the patients’ gums and two important arteries. They examined the carotid arteries, which carry blood to the brain, and the aorta, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

They found a strong link between inflammation in the gums and inflammation in the arteries. In general, as the FDG images of the gums got brighter, so did the FDG images of the arteries. This suggests there was inflammation in both places.

Some patients also had surgery to remove cholesterol deposits from their carotid arteries. Researchers examined the tissue removed during surgery and found another strong link. Patients with a bright FDG signal in the gums were also likely to have certain cells that cause inflammation in their artery tissues.

The study suggests it might be possible to reduce inflammation in the arteries by intensively treating inflamed gums, but the researchers said more studies are needed to know for sure. 

Questions for You to Consider

  • Why is FDG-PET good at finding inflammation?

  • The “G” in FDG stands for glucose, which is a type of sugar. Inflamed tissues burn through a lot of energy. They take up the glucose to use as fuel. Normal tissues don’t burn through as much energy, so they take up less glucose.

    When doctors are looking for inflamed or cancerous tissue, they use FDG that has been labeled with a small amount of radioactivity. The FDG is injected into a vein and is taken up by inflamed tissues as it circulates through the body. The PET camera can see how much glucose the inflamed tissue is using by measuring the radioactive particles the FDG releases.

  • What is the connection between gum disease and heart disease?
  • It’s not completely clear. Scientists don’t know whether gum disease actually causes cardiovascular disease. It’s possible that something else is causing both problems. One theory is that bacteria from diseased gums invade the artery wall and cause inflammation to erupt there too. The bacteria may also provoke the body to release several chemicals that cause inflammation in the arteries.
  • What should I do if I have red, inflamed gums?

  • Even if you’re not worried about heart disease—but especially if you are—you should see your dentist or periodontal specialist. It’s important to follow their recommendations for treating your gum disease. Good care of your teeth and gums requires some effort every day, but it will keep you healthier. Remember, it’s not just your smile that’s at stake—it could be your heart.