If you're worried about heart disease, you can easily spend thousands of dollars each year trying to prevent it, paying hand over fist for prescription medicines, shelves of healthy cookbooks, fitness machines for your home, and a gym membership.
Or maybe not. A number of recent studies suggest that you may already have a cheap and powerful weapon against heart attacks, strokes, and other heart disease conditions. It costs less than $2 and is sitting on your bathroom counter. It is none other than the humble toothbrush.
In the movies, you never doubt when a man's having a heart attack. He clutches his chest, screams, or moans, and falls to the ground. If he's lucky, help is on its way.
In real life, the signs aren't always so clear. Some people do experience Hollywood-type symptoms, says Mohamud Daya, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. But others don’t. “Some people say they just feel uneasy discomfort or vague discomfort, not pain that really hurts...
"There are a lot of studies that suggest that oral health, and gum disease in particular, are related to serious conditions like heart disease," says periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.
So can preventing periodontal disease, a disease of the gums and bone that support the teeth, with brushing and flossing prevent heart disease?
The evidence isn't clear yet, experts say, but it's intriguing. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, people with periodontal disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease (also called heart disease). And one study found that the presence of common problems in the mouth, including gum disease (gingivitis), cavities, and missing teeth, were as good at predicting heart disease as cholesterol levels.
Evidence Links Periodontal Disease and Heart Health
When it comes to the connection between periodontal disease and heart disease, epidemiologist Moise Desvarieux, MD, PhD, is used to dealing with skeptics.
"One of the talks I give is called, 'Investigating the Links Between Periodontal Infection and Vascular Disease: Are We Nuts?'" says Desvarieux, from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "It's not a connection that people naturally think of."
Desvarieux was the lead author of a recent study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association that studied 657 people without known heart disease. He and his co-authors found that people who had higher blood levels of certain disease-causing bacteria in the mouth were more likely to have atherosclerosis in the carotid artery in the neck. Clogging of the carotid arteries can lead to stroke.