How important is oral health in your overall wellness strategy? You might be surprised to learn that poor dental hygiene is a proven factor in heart disease and, now, a recent study has made a connection between your teeth and an increased risk of having a stroke. The American Heart Association estimates there are around 800,000 strokes each year in this country and stroke is the fifth most common cause of death. It is also one of the topmost preventable causes of disability. How does having bad teeth increase your risk of stroke?
What is a Stroke and How is It Connected to Your Teeth?
A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke sheds new light on this topic. When a person has a stroke, something happens that deprives the brain of oxygen. Without oxygen, the cells in the brain begin to die and that, in turn, impacts other body functions like movement, speech and even breathing. In the U.S., every 30 seconds someone has a stroke and it takes just minutes of oxygen deprivation for those critical brain cells to start dying.
There are two main categories of a stroke:
Poor oral health is specifically linked to ischemic strokes, which are the most prevalent. When a person has an ischemic stroke, the arteries of the brain are too narrow for blood to pass effectively, usually due to a clot or some other debris in the bloodstream that clogs the artery. The specific culprit is a bacteria that can live in the mouth called Streptococcus mutans. That strain is present in only about 10 percent of people but is found in around 33 percent of all stroke victims.
What Does the Study Show About Poor Oral Health and Stroke?
For this study, the researchers looked at the association between periodontal disease and cardiovascular conditions like a stroke. The goal was to determine if regular dental care could lower one’s risk of suffering an ischemic stroke. As part of their study, they collected data from a long-term research project called the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (ARIC). The ARIC tracked the health of 6,730 participants over several decades to see who did what and how it affected them.
The researchers wanted to know which participants in the ARIC went to the dentist regularly and who only went when they had a problem with their teeth. By looking at the data, they found that the people in this study with some form of the periodontal disease were more likely to have had a stroke or were at risk of having one. They also determined that regular dental care played a role in lowering their risk.
How Does Bacteria get From Your Mouth to Your Blood?
Still can’t quite make the connection? After all, you don’t really have blood in your mouth, but bleeding gums is one of the initial signs of periodontal disease. The gum tissue and teeth require oxygenation just like any other part of your body. The oxygen comes via red blood cells that travel through tiny arteries in the gum and dental pulp. When the gum is irritated, it starts to bleed the same way a rash on your skin would bleed if you scratch too much.
Bleeding creates an opening that allows the Streptococcus mutans bacteria into the blood. Once there, it is free to travel to other areas like the heart and brain. A decaying tooth is another problem spot when it comes to stroke. Left unchecked, the decay can reach down into the pulp of the tooth and the blood vessels there, opening the door to bacteria.
What Can You Do to Lower Your Risk of Stroke?
The steps to reducing your risk of ischemic stroke start at home. Not everyone carries the S. mutans bacteria in their mouth and even if you do that doesn’t guarantee you will be the victim of a stroke — not if you take care of your teeth and gums. Good oral hygiene keeps the mouth healthy and greatly reduces your risk.
To practice good oral hygiene, you need to do three things like clockwork:
- Brush your teeth twice a day
- Floss your teeth every night
- See the dentist every six months for an exam and cleaning
Together, these three simple steps lower your risk of both periodontal disease and tooth decay. Eliminate just one of them, though, like going to the dentist every six months and your chances of stroke goes up. Even if you practice good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing regularly, without the trip to the dentist, you are still missing out. As your dentist, we do more than just clean your teeth. Our job is to catch the dental disease in the early stages and help you take steps to prevent it from going any further.
You do other things in your life to lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke. You exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and watch your weight, so why ignore your teeth? Without good dental hygiene, you put yourself on a path that may lead to stroke.
Let us help you find your way back to good health and a strong cardiovascular system. Call today at 610-692-4440 to schedule a full exam and dental cleaning.