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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Gum infection linked to heart disease

Dr. Robert McGrail

Dr. Robert McGrail, a Fredericksburg periodontist, is intrigued by the link between periodontal disease and other health issues, such as heart disease and stroke. It’s well established that if you smoke, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a family history of heart disease, you run a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. Now, McGrail says, gum disease may have to be added to the list.

“We think of our oral cavity as separate from the rest of our body,” he said. “When you think about it, why would we not be concerned if we had infection in our mouth.”

For years, dentists have explained gum disease by pointing to the plaque that forms underneath the gum and around the roots of the teeth. The plaque puts off acids that destroy the gum and the supporting bone and cause tooth loss. About 75 percent of the population is affected.

“For many years we felt that was pretty much the story,” McGrail said.

But now dentists and others are looking at what happens when this infection is untreated. The inflammation of the gums that accompanies the disease produces chemicals that damage the tissue. These same chemical markers are found in other parts of the body when one has heart disease or diabetes.

The link between heart disease and gum disease has caught the attention of the American Journal of Cardiology and the Journal of Periodontology. The two journals last year published a consensus report, summarizing the evidence for the link. The paper also explains how the link might occur and advises doctors to inform their patients about it.

The report says, “It seems reasonable on the basis of current data to acknowledge that because untreated or inadequately controlled periodontitis increases the systemic inflammatory burden, periodontitis may independently increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.”

McGrail said he noticed a change in attitude among physicians after publication of the joint report. “Up until this point, as a dentist, I really didn’t feel that physicians took oral health too seriously,” he said.

 Now they do. “The joint report gave the issue validity, McGrail said. “This isn’t just a dental issue.”

 The joint publication of the two professional organizations can be found here.