Can dental plaque lead to heart disease? Writer Randal Burd takes a closer look at this topic.
“Brush your teeth, twice a day. It keeps away all tooth decay. And like my other little chums, you also must massage your gums.” – “Boy Meets Dog” (1938)
The importance of brushing your teeth is a message which has been imposed on the public even before televisions ceaselessly delivered a seemingly endless variety of advertisements into the home. The quote above, taken from a 1938 cartoon short produced by Walter Lantz Productions for the Bristol-Myers Company, features comic strip characters from the syndicated “Reg’lar Fellers” by Gene Byrnes extolling the virtues of regular dental care.
While the Bristol-Myers Company may have been trying to sell Ipana toothpaste, brushing one’s teeth twice a day is also advice regularly delivered to patients by dentists across the country. The consequences of failing to brush and floss have long been understood: plaque buildup, gingivitis, and tooth decay are all conditions that can plague those unwilling to engage in oral hygiene. But if those consequences fail to motivate consumers to buy a new toothbrush, an additional threat raises the stakes considerably.
Up until recently, scientific research consistently indicated connections between dental plaque and a number of ailments outside the mouth, the most serious of which is heart disease. Other ailments, from dementia to rheumatoid arthritis, and even diabetes, have also been linked to the sticky bacteria which gather on the teeth and gums. The connection between oral health and heart disease was suggested as recently as this February 2007 press release from Harvard Medical School, which speculates on the reasons tooth plaque could affect other parts of the body, including the heart. A 2009 editors’ consensus paper, published by The American Journal of Cardiology and the Journal of Periodontology and funded by a grant from Colgate-Palmolive, Inc., further suggests a correlation between oral and heart health.
However, a 2012 “scientific statement” from the American Heart Association suggests that research now indicates no causative relationship between oral health and heart health. The more plausible scenario suggested for why such associations were made in the past is simply that the other diseases mentioned share several risk factors of periodontal disease. A December 2013 editorial by Thomas Van Dyke and Jacqueline Starr, also published by the American Heart Association, acknowledges a connection between periodontal and cardiovascular disease which centers on inflammation.
Any dissent from the AHA or elsewhere does not seem to have changed the overall conversation. A July 23, 2014, post from Julie Corliss, Executive Editor of the Harvard Heart Letter, is titled, “Treating Gum Disease May Lessen the Burden of Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Other Conditions.”
Dental plaque, the sticky bacteria which accumulates on the teeth and gums of those who fail to practice good oral hygiene, has long been suspected of contributing to ailments outside of the mouth, including serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. The majority of, but not all, reputable sources on the Internet seem to still believe there is a connection (usually involving inflammation) between periodontal disease and heart disease. As good oral hygiene should be a worthy goal in and of itself, lack of a definitive answer should not deter the continued pursuit of positive oral hygiene habits.