Going to the dentist can be stressful, frightening and painful -- but it may also help your heart.
Research presented Sunday at the American Heart Association's (AHA) annual conference in Orlando, Fla., suggests that not only do frequent dental cleanings ward off plaque and gum disease, but they can also reduce risk of heart disease and stroke.
"Periodontal, or gum health, as a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, has been looked at several times over the past 10 years," said Dr. Thomas Gerber, an AHA spokesman and a professor of medicine and radiology at the Mayo Clinic. "Some prior studies found a relationship between gum disease and heart or other disease, whereas others didn't."
Gerber was not involved with the new research.
The exact mechanism of how gum disease may be linked to heart disease and stroke is unclear.
One thought is that poor dental hygiene leads to an overgrowth of oral bacteria. These organisms, fairly benign in the mouth, can get into the bloodstream through the gums and, once there, they can clump on blood vessel walls and grow into plaques that clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes. Moreover, because these bacteria are foreign to the body, once they infiltrate the bloodstream, blood vessels think they are being attacked and try to kill them, just as they would an infection. This results in inflammation and swelling that narrows blood vessels and prevents adequate blood flow to vital organs like the brain and heart.
The recent study was less concerned with the details of why gum disease increases risk of heart disease and stroke, but whether the risk can be reduced through frequent dental visits.
"Poor oral hygiene has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease," the study's abstract acknowledged. "However, the association between preventive dentistry and cardiovascular risk reduction remained underdetermined."
Dr. Zu-Yin Chen and colleagues at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan followed more than 100,000 patients over a seven-year period, only half of whom had ever had their teeth cleaned.
They found that the participants who had ever had their teeth cleaned had a 24 percent decreased risk of heart attack and a 13 percent lower stroke risk compared to those who had never had a dental cleaning.
Not only did any dental cleanings reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, but Chen said in the news release, "Protection from heart disease and stroke was more pronounced in participants who got tooth scaling at least once a year," meaning that the more often people had their teeth cleaned, the lower their risk of heart disease and stroke.
Although the results suggest that preventative dental care can lower risk of heart disease and stroke, the study did not account for other cardiovascular risk factors that could have contributed to the association.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that most heart attacks and strokes are related to the so-called traditional risk factors, and those are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, smoking, weighing too much and not exercising enough. It remains very important to take control of those risk factors," said Gerber. "People shouldn't think that by going to the dentist more often they're going to reduce their risk of heart disease."