Periodontal or gum disease is a bacterial infection affecting an estimated 56 million Americans, and is almost as widespread as the common cold. A bacterial film called plaque, which continuously forms around the teeth and gums, causes gum disease. Gum disease is responsible for bleeding gums, bad breath, loose teeth and teeth that fall out. Until recently, the prospect of losing one's teeth was the main thing a person suffering from gum disease had to worry about. Now, a building body of research has uncovered possible links between gum disease, heart disease and stroke.
Dr. Walter Loesche, a professor of dentistry from the University of Michigan, and his colleagues, studied a sample of 400 men at the Ann Arbor VA hospital in Michigan in order to establish if a relationship exists between gum disease and heart disease. Analysis of the plaque in men with gum disease found higher levels of gram-negative anaerobic bacteria in patients with heart disease than in patients without heart disease. This type of bacteria contains lipopolysaccharides (a fat and carbohydrate compound) that can be released into the bloodstream and cause obstructive clots in our arteries. A clogged coronary artery supplying the heart can cause a fatal heart attack. Dr. Loesche has established that men over 60 years of age whose gums bleed around almost every tooth (a main symptom of gum disease) were four and a half times more likely to have coronary heart disease.
Dr. Loesche has also established a link between more advanced gum disease and cerebral vascular accident or stroke. People who had lost more than six millimeters of bone around the tooth roots and had gum disease involving many teeth (15 to 28) were highly associated with stroke risk. People who had had regular dental exams at least once a year were four times less likely to have a history of stroke.
Diagnosis of gum disease involves a careful examination of the teeth and gums, including measurement or probing of the gums, and X-rays to establish a visual reading of the bone level around the teeth. Probe depths of three to five or six millimeters of bone loss, and red, puffy and bleeding gums confirm early gum disease. Deep cleaning of the gums, sometimes with the addition of antibiotics, is treatment for early gum disease. Moderate gum disease, established by probe depths of five to seven millimeters of bone loss and advanced gum disease, which is any probe reading greater than seven millimeters, is treated with both deep cleaning of the gums and gum surgery. Moderate and advanced gum disease can also be aided by the use of antibiotics in some cases.
Patients who are being treated for gum disease should practice excellent oral hygiene -- brushing teeth at least three or four times a day and flossing every day. Smokers with gums disease should stop as soon as possible because smoking makes gum disease worse. Patients who have gum disease should see their dentist at least three to four times a year so the dentist can both clean and monitor the teeth and gums.
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