It's not definitively known which comes first, however - that is, whether gum disease contributes to the other disorders or the latter lead to gum disease. But the correlation is strong enough to warrant a renewed enthusiasm, health professionals say, for flossing, brushing and visits to the dentist. Gum disease is caused by bacteria in the plaque that accumulates under the flesh enfolding the bones that hold the teeth.
The microorganisms trigger inflammation or infection in the gum tissue. They release toxic substances that attack the bone. And they may even circulate in the blood and cause damage elsewhere in the body. "It is like setting up a garbage dump on the edge of a river," says Vincent J. Iacono, former president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
"You wouldn't be surprised if the lake downstream ended up polluted with the garbage from the dump." One study suggests hope for the sick from adopting better personal dental management. The research, conducted by Maurizio Tonetti, chairman of the University of Connecticut's Division of Periodontology, investigated the health benefit to people with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, of reducing oral bacteria and toxins.
He reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that his patients, who participated in a six-month treatment for gum disease, emerged not only with healthier gums but also with improved functioning of the lining of their blood vessels.