For a long time, there was debate about whether gum disease caused heart disease or if they were just correlated because of common risk factors (obesity, diabetes, smoking, etc.). We are increasingly finding that the evidence says gum disease actually causes heart disease. We know that treating gum disease improves heart health, and now new research from the University of Alberta in Canada describes a causal chain by which gum disease leads to heart disease.
Setting off the Body’s Sentinels
Researchers identified a new receptor on cells in the mouth, which they designated as CD36. This receptor, they found, interacted with oral bacteria. When CD36 was triggered, it in turn set off the body’s toll-like receptors. These receptors are in certain types of immune cells, often called sentinel cells because it’s their job to roam the body looking for signs of early infection and fighting back. When these cells are triggered, they release a compound that triggers inflammation in the body. This inflammation trigger has already been linked to the hardening of arteries.
A New Treatment Angle
With the discovery of CD36, researchers have identified a new potential angle for treating many of the problems related to gum disease. Gum disease’s negative impacts are partly due to the body’s own response. This triggers the hardening of arteries, and it can also be partly responsible for the loss of bone around your teeth that leads to tooth loss, as well as prostate symptoms associated with gum disease.
If researchers can find a way to suppress the CD36 receptor, by either preventing it from interacting with oral bacteria or stopping it from triggering sentinel cells, they can tone down the body’s immune response to oral bacteria. This would allow gum disease treatments more time to work before the body’s alarms lead to damage.
Oral Care Will Always Be Crucial
The body creates its responses because it knows that losing teeth or even developing heart disease is better than having a rampant infection in your mouth. If we are going to soften the body’s immune response, we will have to be extra vigilant about gum disease, with better oral hygiene, more regular dental visits, and better gum disease treatment.
The tradeoff might be worth it to prevent early death from heart disease.