We know that gum disease has the potential to cause serious health problems throughout the body. Chronic inflammation impacts many organs in the body, including the heart, lungs, and brain. But how much impact the inflammation has on serious health problems is still a matter of debate.

Now a new large study looking at nearly 800,000 people in Taiwan for over ten years is showing that the connection is not only real, it’s serious. The study showed that people with gum disease were about 30% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation than people without gum disease.

man having atrial fibrillation, chest pain

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a kind of irregularity in the way the heart beats. It’s the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia. The atria are supposed to perform regular, steady beats to push the blood into the ventricles. The ventricles then drive the blood to the lungs or throughout the body. However, in atrial fibrillation the atria have a weak flutter that is inefficient at moving the blood.

A person with atrial fibrillation is at risk for blood clots, stroke, and heart failure. People with atrial fibrillation may have no symptoms.  Or they may notice chest discomfort, weakness, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.

How Strong Is the Connection with Gum Disease?

Researchers in Taiwan sought to determine how strongly gum disease is linked with atrial fibrillation. They enrolled 393,745 patients both with and without gum disease in 1999-2000. They then looked at patient admission records from 1999 to 2010 to determine how many people in each group developed atrial fibrillation.

The size of this study is truly amazing: a total of about four million patient-years for patients with gum disease and the same for those without gum disease. The odds are good that a study of this size will detect any relationship, and also be able to distinguish a true relationship from a statistical artifact.

Researchers looked at all the patient data and initially showed that people with gum disease were 11% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. However, after accounting for confounding factors, such as age, they found that the likely increase in risk was 30%. They also found that the increased risk persisted through all subgroups of the population, except for hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea.

Since hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea are both risk factors for atrial fibrillation, it’s likely the effect of these conditions reduced the appearance of association with gum disease.

How Are Gum Disease and Atrial Fibrillation Linked?

The most likely cause of links between gum disease and atrial fibrillation is systemic inflammation. You probably recognize inflammation from when you get a cut and it the area swells and turns red. That’s your body trying to fight infection and repair injury. Gum disease is a chronic infection, and the body is constantly trying to repair the wounds and fight the infection.

Inflammatory chemicals can have many side effects, including an impact on the heart. Inflammation markers can impact the electrical activity that regulates the heart, causing atrial fibrillation. This mechanism could explain how gum disease causes heart problems.

If you are looking to preserve your heart health, you should also take care of your gums with regular visits to a dentist for checkups and preventive care. If you need a dentist in Wilmington, NC, please call (910) 392-6060 today for an appointment at Kuzma Advanced Dentistry.