Worried about heart disease? Keep tooth infection at bay, say researchers

Dr Aran Moorthy

Dr Aran Moorthy

This article was written by Australian dental surgeon Dr Aran Moorthy, BDS. Dr Moorthy has a Bachelor of Dental Surgery from the University of Adelaide. You can read more about Dr Moorthy here >

Avoiding tooth infection is common sense; no one wants the pain, aggravation or costly dental bills. But now a new study gives us more incentive to keep tooth infections at bay.

Dental X-ray or exam

Heart disease is a well-known killer throughout developing countries. In the US, it’s responsible for around 610,000 deaths every year, while in Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics quotes numbers over 20,000 people a year.

There are many contributing factors of heart disease:

  • high cholesterol levels
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • a lack of physical activity
  • diabetes

When it comes to dental health, more research back the suggestion that the bacterium linked to gum disease may also increase the risk of developing heart disease.

And now, there’s more evidence that poor dental health can lead to coronary problems. Researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland have revealed a link between periodontitis and an increased risk for acute coronary syndrome (ACS), a condition that involves blocked blood flow to the coronary arteries.

This research performed by co-author John Liljestrand (and his colleagues), of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Diseases at the University of Helsinki, was recently published in the Journal of Dental Research.

Understanding periodontitis

So, how common is periodontitis and should we be worried?

Periodontitis is characterised by inflammatory lesions of the pulp in the centre of your tooth, and it’s most commonly triggered by infection. For example, plain old garden variety dental caries or tooth decay are both common contributors.

More concerning is the fact that this condition can exist happily without detection because usually, it doesn’t initially cause pain. Pain only presents further down the track once the infection is well underway, or once an x-ray is performed.

Research conclusions

The Finland study was sizable. Involving 508 individuals of a mean age of 62 who are experiencing some heart problems, all patients were given an x-ray of the blood vessels (angiography).

  • 36% of the patients had stable CAD (coronary artery disease)
  • 33% had ACS (acute coronary syndrome – a term used for conditions involving blocked blood flow to the coronary arteries)
  • 31% had no significant CAD

Researchers then assessed the patient’s teeth and jaws using panoramic tomography. 58% of the patients were found to have had at least one inflammatory lesion, which is a sign of apical periodontitis.

The researchers concluded that patients with periodontitis were more likely to have CAD or ACS. The association was strongest with those whose periodontal condition was untreated and required root canal treatment, with 2.7 times greater risk of ACS.

The researchers took several cofounding factors into consideration: age, gender, smoking, diabetes, BMI and number of teeth.

Researchers were keen to stress that their findings should be of high interest to the public health sector, particularly with the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in our society.

Adding fuel to the fire was another finding: patients with periodontitis had high levels of antibodies in their blood that are found when other common bacteria are present, which suggests that oral infections may have an effect on other areas of the body.

Your heart health

For all of us that are keen to look after our general health, and our heart health, researchers suggest that everyone should take measures to prevent tooth infections as they can be asymptomatic.

Brushing and flossing regularly, and maintaining regular checkups are essential for your oral and overall physical health.

When was your last dental checkup?

If you have private health insurance, you may not even have to pay a cent!

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