Your mom always told you to brush your teeth, and research shows mom really knew what she was talking about. In addition to protecting your teeth, good dental hygiene can be an important part of your overall plan to prevent problems with your heart.
We all have bacteria called streptococcus living in our mouths. These bacteria live in groups or communities called biofilms. A biofilm is a thin layer of cells that produce a substance that helps them stick to whatever surface they are on. In the mouth, bacteria form a biofilm known as plaque that collects on the teeth. Most of the time, we don’t know the bacteria are there and brushing and flossing helps keep them under control.
In addition to keeping plaque from collecting on teeth, brushing and flossing help the gums around your teeth stay healthy. This is important because unhealthy gums can bleed, which provides the bacteria in the mouth a free ride into the bloodstream. Researchers at the University of Bristol and at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have learned that once in the bloodstream, streptococcus bacteria use a protein on their surface called PadA to form blood clots which can cause serious heart problems or strokes.
Our bodies use antibodies as a defense mechanism to fight unwanted organisms that can make us sick. The streptococcus bacteria uses the PadA protein to create a protective barrier so it can hide from the antibodies that are trying to eliminate it. Using their natural tendency to create biofilms that stick to things, the bacteria cause platelets in the blood to stick together in a clump with the bacteria in the middle. This protects the bacteria from the body’s internal antibodies and also from antibiotic medications given to fight the infection.
Heart problems can arise when these clumps of platelets cause small blood clots to form inside the artery or vein. These clots can travel to the heart, where they can collect on the heart valves or cause blockages that can lead to serious heart conditions. They can also travel to the brain where they can cause strokes.