Diane Rochford discusses the role oral health plays in maintaining a healthy heart.
The heart is said to be the hardest working muscle in the human body. It beats more than 2.5bin times over the course of an average lifetime, pumping millions of gallons of blood around the body. This constant blood flow not only helps transport waste products out of the body, but also carries oxygen and essential nutrients to the organs to keep them functioning. Considering this never-ending workload, it is extremely important for everyone to look after their heart, especially as having an unhealthy heart can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Every February, National Heart Month shines a spotlight on the dangers of CVD with the aim of promoting good heart health. According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), there are approximately 7.4m people in the UK living with CVD but this figure is thought to be much higher given our aging yet growing population, combined with improved survival rates from heart attacks and strokes. These statistics are worrying as CVD remains a leading cause of mortality worldwide, accounting for a quarter of all deaths in the UK alone.
Risk factors for CVD
CVD encompasses a broad range of different heart and circulatory diseases. Some of the most common include coronary heart disease (which can lead to angina, heart attacks and heart failure), stroke and transient ischaemic attack, peripheral arterial disease and aortic disease. Depending on their severity, these conditions can cause a variety of health problems ranging from minor to life-threatening. Research even suggests that people with CVD are at increased risk of severe complications and/or death from contracting Covid-19.
Age, ethnicity and genetics are unavoidable risk factors for CVD. However, smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, excess alcohol consumption, and being inactive, overweight and/or obese are other risk factors that can be mitigated through various lifestyle changes. These changes may include exercising regularly, quitting smoking, following a healthy diet that is low in sugar, salt and fat, and reducing alcohol intake to less than 14 units a week.
As part of the process of improving heart health, it is crucial that patients are encouraged to maintain good at-home oral hygiene, which involves interdental cleaning once a day and twice-daily toothbrushing using a fluoride toothpaste. Minimising the burden of plaque on the mouth is especially important considering CVD has been linked to periodontal disease. It is thought that the inflammatory nature of periodontal disease may be responsible for the association. Recent research suggests that individuals with periodontitis are more likely to experience a heart attack, stroke or other serious cardiovascular event than those without the disease.
Supporting at-risk patients
Patients who have CVD or are found to be at risk of CVD should be encouraged to visit the dental practice regularly for periodontal examinations as part of the ongoing management of their condition. A collaborative approach between dental teams and allied healthcare professionals is vital to ensure appropriate support is provided. Dental hygienists and dental therapists play a key role in reinforcing effective oral care habits and engaging with patients about adopting a healthier lifestyle to avoid and/or reduce the risk of heart and circulatory-related problems, as well as periodontal disease. It is important to emphasise that simple changes can make all the difference to ensuring a lifetime of good overall health.
References available on request.