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Q
Do Clean Teeth Promote Heart Health?
What does dental health have to do with heart disease? I've heard that gum infections raise your heart disease risk. True?
A
Answer (Published 5/3/2005)
Yes, recent research suggests that the bacteria that cause gum infections can also lead to or worsen atherosclerosis, the arterial disease that leads to heart attacks and strokes. A new study published in the February 8, 2005 issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that people with the highest level of the bacteria that cause gum disease also had the worst atherosclerosis. The study confirmed the long-suspected connection between gum disease and heart disease.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City recruited 660 older men and women for their study. They compared levels of oral bacteria to ultrasound measurements of the thickness of the carotid arteries that carry blood to the brain. They found that the association between oral bacteria and atherosclerosis existed only when they looked at the specific bacteria that cause gum disease, not all the bugs found in the mouth.

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Infections that lead to gum disease usually are long-standing. The researchers explained that if the causative bacteria aren't eliminated or reduced, they trigger an inflammatory response that promotes a gradual thickening of artery walls throughout the body.

To avoid this, you need regular dental checkups so that any gum disease can be identified and treated promptly. When infections are found, the treatment is deep cleaning of the gums often followed by local antibiotics to eliminate bacteria. And, of course, it is vital to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss daily to avoid the buildup of small amounts of food that attract and nourish bacteria.

You might also consider toothbrushes incorporating ultrasound that have been clinically shown to treat gingivitis more effectively than regular tooth brushes. Ask your dentist about them.

Incidentally, another recent study found that people who brush their teeth after every meal tend to remain slimmer than those who don't brush as often. Japanese researchers discovered this effect when they compared the lifestyle habits of nearly 14,000 people whose average age was the mid-forties. They concluded that tooth brushing is a good health habit that could play a role in preventing obesity. The study was published in the Journal of the Japan Society for the Study of Obesity.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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