How Your Dentist Might Be Saving Your Life
You may not realize this, but much of the most interesting and most truly useful health news never makes it to the mainstream news sites or print. Instead it gets buried in obscure journals or on organizational websites. Unless it's something that the media can spin into a fear-inducing headline (zika) or a feel-good piece, you may never hear about health news at all. Especially if it's something that doesn't benefit Big Pharma.
Here's one great example: having your teeth professionally cleaned just once every few years significantly lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke. And having it done regularly cuts your risk by an amazing 24% and 13% respectively.
That's right. Twenty-four percent. To put that in perspective, the most generous estimate of how much statins — which Big Medicine says one-third of us should be taking — lower heart attack risk is 8%. Some experts put the number at closer to 1% or 2%. And the percentage for stroke is so abysmal that no one even mentions it. So why are we talking about statins instead of oral hygiene?
Take a guess.
We've known for years that bacteria from your mouth can migrate to your heart and cause life-threatening infections. And we've also known that certain oral bacteria make blood clots — and ischemic strokes — more likely. Now a study from the University of Louisville School of Medicine ties a strain of oral bacteria to hemorrhagic strokes — caused by bleeding in the brain — too. But in spite of this, we're still not talking about oral hygiene.
That needs to change.
If this were a drug, we'd be seeing ads on TV
The fact that regular cleanings reduce heart attacks and strokes is old news. I first read about it back in 2011. It was a large study that followed over 100,000 people for seven years.
The conclusions were pretty amazing.
Researchers found that those who had their teeth cleaned and scaled yearly had 24% fewer heart attacks and 13% fewer strokes than those who'd never had them cleaned. People who did it less than once every two years still had a 13% reduction in heart attacks and 9% in strokes. These results were presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association…yet somehow never reached the general public.
Did the AHA recommend regular dentist's visits to protect against stroke? No. But you can bet that if it had been a new product by Pfizer that produced these results, the AHA would have included it in their next set of treatment guidelines and your insurance would be paying for it.
The knowledge that mouth bacteria cause blood clots is nothing new either. That information came out of the University of Bristol clear back in 2008. The Bristol scientists showed that oral bacteria enter the bloodstream through bleeding gums, a common symptom of gum disease.
Once in the bloodstream they surround themselves with platelets, which keeps the immune system from recognizing them as an infection and attacking them. Not only does this lead to clots, which can end up in the heart or brain and cause a heart attack or stroke, it also lets the bacteria migrate to and infect other areas — including the heart. This interesting and useful information never made a splash in the news either. And it didn't affect how we practice medicine or the advice we give patients. Was this because we learned something that changed the facts later?
Nope. In fact, we've gone on to learn even more about how bacteria — some of which are totally harmless if they stay confined to our mouths — affect heart health including heart attacks, strokes, and hardening of the arteries.
Want to protect yourself from having a stroke? Take care of your teeth
The latest research, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, links a strain of streptococcus bacteria to hemorrhagic stroke. This is the kind of stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.
In the study, more than a quarter of patients with this type of stroke had the S. mutans bacteria in their saliva while a mere 6% of other stroke victims did. Researchers also noticed a larger number of "microbleeds" in those harboring the bacteria. These are small hemorrhages that don't result in stroke symptoms but can lead to dementia. They concluded that S. mutans may increase the risk of stroke, possibly by weakening blood vessels in the brain.
All this suggests that the health of your mouth directly affects your stroke risk and heart health, and that we probably should be doing something about it. After all, if we had a drug that cut heart attack risk by a quarter and stroke risk by 13%, it would be trumpeted across the front pages.
Doctors would be prescribing it left and right. It would be the blockbuster drug to end all drugs. But we don't have a drug. What we do have is something even better. What we have is the ability to shrink the risk without any drug, through nothing more than positive habits that improve your oral health and ward off gum disease.
Many people have gingivitis, a mild form of gum disease. A lot of them don't even know they have it. They may not be familiar with the symptoms — like bleeding gums or sensitive teeth — or may simply think they're normal.
Risk factors for developing gum disease include not brushing your teeth often enough or brushing improperly, and not flossing. If you're diabetic, if you smoke, or if you're pregnant you're also more likely to develop the problem. Symptoms you may overlook include:
- Sore gums
- Gums that bleed when you brush your teeth
- Red or swollen gums
- Receding gums
- and teeth that are sensitive to heat and cold
If you have any of these symptoms, you just might have gum disease. And if you do have gum disease, it's an open invitation to the bacteria that contribute to strokes and heart attacks. The most important thing you can do to prevent or reverse the problem is to brush and floss twice daily, and have your teeth cleaned regularly by a professional.
So here's my prescription: to take care of your heart and your brain, take care of your teeth. Don't just drag yourself to the dentist when you have a problem, be proactive. Do have a yearly dental check-up, whether you think you need it or not. Do have your teeth cleaned, whether you think they need it or not. And above all, be alert to the signs and symptoms of gum disease.
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