The connection may not be well known, but stroke and gum disease have a lot in common. People with periodontal disease have two to three times the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular event. While research has not yet found the direct link, there are several theories that may explain the link between heart disease, stroke, and periodontal disease.

Scientists believe that inflammation caused by periodontal disease may be responsible for the association, according to the American Association for Periodontology. When bacteria from the mouth enter the blood vessels, they attach to fatty plaques in the heart’s blood vessels (coronary arteries). This buildup may lead to heart attacks and/or stroke or ministroke, which is a common term for a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Cardiovascular disease is the number one leading cause of death in the U.S.

When bacteria enter the bloodstream, inflammation (the body’s natural response to infection) occurs. This leads to a narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries). Atherosclerosis makes it more difficult for your blood to flow to and from your heart, which then leads to heart disease and stroke.

Severe inflammation in the gum tissue is also related to elevated levels of C-reactive proteins that have been linked to heart disease.

According to the American Society for Microbiology, research has found that one specific bacterium linked to periodontitis, Streptococcus sanguis, spreads to the heart once it enters the body. This bacterium also plays a role in strokes. Additional research links the bacterium to thickening of the carotid (neck) arteries, which carry blood to the brain.

Warning signs of periodontitis

According to the American Association of Periodontology, you may have gum disease if you experience:

  • Red, swollen, or tender gums or other pain in your mouth
  • Bleeding while brushing, flossing, or eating hard food
  • Gums that are receding or pulling away from the teeth, causing the teeth to look longer than before
  • Loose or separating teeth
  • Pus between your gums and teeth
  • Sores in your mouth
  • Persistent bad breath
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
  • A change in the fit of partial dentures

If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your dentist. The sooner you seek care, the better your chances of reversing any damage from periodontitis and protecting your overall health.

How to manage gum disease if you have a history of stroke

Good oral hygiene can prevent gum disease. Follow these steps to maintain healthy teeth and gums.

  • Practice regular dental care, which includes brushing after every meal and before bedtime and flossing at least once a day.
  • Visit your dentist at least twice a year for a professional cleaning. When plaque accumulates, it can mineralize, trapping stains and turning into tartar. Once tartar has formed, only your dentist or hygienist can remove it. If you are enrolled in our Dental Xtra program, be sure to take advantage of the two additional cleanings that you’ll receive.
  • Periodontal (gum) disease can also exacerbate existing heart conditions. Some dental plan members who have heart disease may require antibiotics prior to dental procedures. Talk with your dentist to see if this applies to you.

Condition -specific benefits at no additional cost

To help manage the condition and improve oral health, our Dental Xtra program provides enhanced dental benefits for enrolled program members who have had a stroke. These benefits are covered 100% with no out-of-pocket expenses when seeing a participating provider.

  • Two additional cleanings or periodontal maintenance visits per year (total of four).
  • If your plan includes periodontal coverage, periodontal scaling is covered at 100% with no out-of-pocket expense. Often referred to as a deep cleaning, periodontal scaling reaches below the gumline to remove the buildup of plaque and toxic bacteria.

Members with health and dental plans from Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield who have had a stroke are enrolled automatically. Dental members who don’t have a health plan with Arkansas Blue Cross can easily enroll online.

To use your Dental Xtra benefits, simply make an appointment with your dentist. To find a dentist in your plan’s network, visit our provider directory.