Since this week is all about hearts, it seems an appropriate time to talk about a very important issue that affects the lives of nearly 28 million Americans: heart disease. The heart is arguably the most important organ in our bodies, keeping the rest of the body well-supplied with oxygen and nutrients, and frankly, keeping us alive. Accounting for 750,000 deaths each year, heart disease is the leading cause of death in developed countries, and what’s devastating is, many causes of heart disease are entirely preventable through lifestyle modifications.

Valentine’s Day is also a day for smiles, as people across the globe express love to their partners, friends, and family. Your smile, just like your heart, can become diseased, and requires just as much care to stay healthy. The most widespread oral health disease is periodontal disease, an inflammatory condition of the gums that affects half of all Americans adults over 30. Periodontal disease, sometimes called gum disease, occurs when an excess of harmful bacteria grows in the mouth. Gingivitis, the mildest form of the disease, is marked by swollen and bleeding gums. If not addressed, gingivitis can advance to more advanced stages of periodontal disease which damage the tissues and bones that support teeth. In advanced periodontal disease, gums recede away from the teeth, creating pockets that become infected. Eventually, tooth loss results. Perhaps the most jarring fact about periodontal disease- and one unbeknownst to many — is its relationship to other systemic diseases like heart disease.

There is a growing body of research that supports a relationship between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease. Many scientists attribute the connection between the two diseases to the fact that both conditions are mediated by inflammation. Molecules produced during inflammation of the gums can affect the body systemically, potentially worsening atherosclerosis. Additionally, one of the main bacterial species responsible for periodontal disease (P. gingivalis) has been found in atherosclerotic plaques. In fact, it is common for patients with atherosclerotic disease to have periodontal disease as well. However, the two diseases share common risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, stress, low socioeconomic status, diabetes, and poor hygiene practices, making it difficult to establish a causal relationship. The latest research indicates that reducing periodontal disease is related to a decreased rate of atherosclerosis progression. Some researchers have even proposed a genetic link between the two conditions, suggesting that people who are predisposed to cardiovascular disease and also predisposed to oral disease.

Although much is still unknown about the connection between oral health and heart health, the medical and dental communities agree that cardiovascular disease stems from a constellation of risk factors, including infection and inflammation. Since the oral cavity is one potential source of infection and inflammation, reducing oral disease is recommended for good overall health.

The key to keeping your heart, mouth, and the rest of your body healthy, is reducing inflammation in the body. Regular exercise, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in fat, and of course good home oral care practices are all ways to prevent systemic inflammation and keep your body in top shape. Practice some self-love this Valentine’s Day by taking care of yourself and encourage the loved ones around you to do the same!

Originally published at