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Gum disease affects the heart (10-15-99)

When Melvin Skinner had a heart attack three years ago, he never thought his gum disease might have contributed to his heart condition.

The link between the two has been considered for more than a decade. "Gum disease is inflammation of the tissues surrounding the teeth," says David Cochran, D.D.S., chairman of periodontics at The University of Texas Heath Science Center at

San Antonio. "The approximately 400 types of bacteria in your mouth cause the trouble that can lead to gum and bone loss. The same bacteria get into your bloodstream and damage the linings of blood vessels. If your coronary arteries are already damaged, the bacteria exacerbate the situation more."

About 36 million Americans have gum disease. The disease goes untreated for many because there are few symptoms. Since it rarely causes pain, the disease can quietly eat away the teeth and gum for years. Some individuals experience bleeding and inability to chew, which necessitates medical attention.

"By the time patients do come in to find out what is the matter with their gums, the disease has advanced considerably," says Dr. Cochran.

Smoking tends to make periodontal disease worse because more bacteria get into the bloodstream, increasing the likelihood for heart disease. Also, smokers have a tougher time with periodontal treatment because the treatment usually takes longer.

Diabetic patients may be adversely effected by periodontal disease. "Since their blood vessels are already compromised, the disease becomes even more pronounced and the ability to heal also suffers," says Dr. Cochran. "It is crucial that diabetics keep their gums healthy, not only because of their diabetes but because of the threat of heart disease."

The good news is that periodontal disease is treatable. Heart patient Melvin Skinner is finding that out. Over the next few months, Skinner will undergo treatments to make his gums healthy again. The prognosis is good for a complete recovery.

Contact: Myong Covert