There was some shocking news recently that completely rocked the world of oral health — daily flossing doesn’t affect the amount of plaque or the amount of cavities you could develop, at all.

But hold the phone! You’ve probably heard about the link between oral hygiene and heart health.  There have been multiple studies conducted over the past several years that suggest poor oral health—cavities and gum disease—can lead to tissue inflammation and heart disease. While poor oral health can certainly cause and be symptomatic of a number of other health issues, is there really a relationship between oral and heart health?

And, what would that relationship be?

It’s an interesting question, even more considering it hasn’t been conclusively answered. The link between heart health and oral health has been scrutinized for some time, but it’s a link that has received attention due to media focus and growing concerns (such as the increase in the rate of heart disease in the United States). Much of the research seems to suggest a couple of different things. Some studies have indicated oral bacteria are entering the bloodstream through deep cavities and other damaged tissue such as gums affected by gingivitis. The persisting hypothesis is the bacteria are causing inflammation within the arteries, which over time can lead to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Alternatively, other studies indicate the possibility of the development of endocarditis. In this case, rather than the arteries becoming inflamed, it’s the heart.  It’s suspected that oral bacteria contributed to inflammation of the inner heart walls which may happen when bacteria become attached to parts of the heart that may already inflamed, exacerbating a preexisting condition.

These are just two possibilities, however. It isn’t yet fully understood what the relationship between the mouth and the heart is. The relationship between the mouth and the body is already quite complex and this specific relationship adds to that complexity. There is one prevailing school of thought that may shed some light on these newer, hypothesized mouth/heart connections.  It has less to do with bacteria in the bloodstream and more to do with overall lifestyle, including diet and hygiene.

It’s common knowledge that people who consume more sugary foods and drinks tend to have more cavities, and said foods can lead to diseases such as diabetes and hearth disease. In some cases, diet can play such an active role in a person’s overall health that even brushing and flossing might not be enough.  That being said, having poor oral health—having cavities and gum disease—doesn’t automatically mean heart issues will develop (or any other health issues, for that matter). It still may be cause for concern. Additionally, the presence of cavities and gum disease (especially if they’re persistent) may indicate another health issue, such as diabetes.

Let’s get back to lifestyle. On average, people who maintain good oral health—brush and floss regularly—tend to do so as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Good habits tend to go hand-in-hand. They generally have healthier diets, better hygiene, and they are more likely to exercise regularly. As a whole these habits lead to a healthier heart and body. Comparatively, people who don’t maintain as healthy a lifestyle (which may include brushing and flossing less frequently, eating less healthy foods, exercising less, and smoking) may being seeing increased instances of health issues. As a result, while there may be a connection between poor oral health and heart problems, the real problem may be more significant.

So, what does that all mean?

There is evidence to suggest there may be a connection linked to oral bacteria, but it’s inconclusive at this point. It’s more likely related to overall lifestyle rather than a specific occurrence. The best thing you can do is to take preventative measures by focusing on having a healthier lifestyle coupled with good oral health habits, such as brushing and flossing daily.