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
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.
I had my first heart attack 26 years ago, when I was 52. I was very active
then, sometimes jogging and often walking long distances. But I was also on the
congressional staff in Washington, and the day leading up to the attack was
even more hectic than usual. My boss was introducing major legislation, and I
had crafted an important floor speech. I didn’t have time for regular meals and
ate a huge cheeseburger for dinner, then smoked three or four cigarettes.
It happened about 3 in the morning...
"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
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
"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.
Atherosclerosis, also called "hardening of the arteries," develops
when deposits of fats and other substances in your blood begin to stick to the
sides of your arteries. These deposits, called plaques, can build up and narrow
your arteries, clogging them like a plugged-up drain. If these plaques ever
block the blood flow completely, you could have a heart attack or stroke,
depending on the location of the blockage.
(Note: Not all plaque is alike. The plaques in your arteries have
nothing to do with dental plaque your dental hygienist scrapes off
your teeth. Dental plaque is a sticky residue of bacteria, acid, and food
particles that can irritate your gums and eat away at tooth enamel.)