As regular readers of Sunnyside Dentistry blog know, a lot of recent research has found compelling links between our oral and overall health. Now a new study suggests tooth loss that occurs during middle age can increase an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease. What makes this study unique is that researchers found that this increased risk still occurs independently of the traditional risk factors of heart disease, including diabetes, poor diet, and high blood pressure.
This was the preliminary findings from the research team at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
“In addition to other established associations between dental health and risk of disease, our findings suggest that middle-aged adults who have lost two or more teeth in the recent past could be at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease,” wrote the study’s lead author, Dr. Lu Qi.
While this study does not mark the first time researchers have investigated the link between oral health and heart disease, it is the first to focus on the impact tooth loss has during midlife and that excludes other potential risk factors.
The results of this study were recently published in the journal Circulation and presented at an annual meeting of the American Heart Association held in New Orleans.
Understanding Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is a general term that addresses all diseases of the blood vessels and heart. This also includes diseases of blood vessels that supply: the heart muscle (coronary heart disease); the brain (stroke and cerebrovascular diseases); and the legs and arms (peripheral arterial disease).
The term also applies to other conditions that can cause heart damage, as well as conditions that result in a blockage of blood supply or blood clots.
Cardiovascular disease currently ranks as the leading cause of death worldwide. In 2015 alone, the disease accounted for the deaths of over 17 million people, including over 6 million due to stroke and over 7 million due to heart disease.
In the U.S., heart disease ranks as the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for over 23 percent of all deaths each year.
Despite the high mortality rate, individuals can successfully lower their risk for cardiovascular disease by adopting healthier lifestyles, including cessation of smoking, dietary changes, and maintaining an active lifestyle.
However, early detection of cardiovascular disease still remains inconsistent as a need exists for improved markers for the disease that would allow for treatments to start in time to help patients recover before permanent damage occurs.
The Link Between Oral and Heart Health
The connection that exists between our oral and heart health is not one that science recently stumbled upon. In fact, theories linking the two have been around for over 100 years.
The American Heart Association published a comprehensive review of the connection in 2012 that definitively stated that an association between gum disease and atherosclerotic vascular disease did exist independently of other known risk factors.
A type of cardiovascular disease, atherosclerotic vascular disease develops when sticky plaque deposits form inside arteries, making them thicker and more congested. As plaque continues to build up over time, blood flow is restricted and can cause stroke, heart attack, and even death.
While researchers initially thought that poor oral health directly contributed to the development of cardiovascular disease through inflammation and infection, recent discoveries suggests that poor oral health acts more as an indicator of atherosclerotic rather than the cause.
Heart Disease and Tooth Loss
As part of the study, researchers focused on coronary heart disease and tooth loss. They collected and examined data on thousands of women and men between the ages of 45 to 69 who participated in either the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study or the Nurses’ Health Study.
None of the participants in either study had coronary heart disease when they first joined back in 1986 and 1992, respectively.
As part of an initial survey, participants were asked about the number of permanent teeth they had remaining when they enrolled, and about any recent tooth loss in follow-up surveys. With this information, researchers were able to determine tooth loss over an 8-year period.
Researchers then compared any recent tooth loss to incidences of coronary heart disease over a 12 to 18-year follow-up period. They then broke the participants into one of three groups: those had lost no recent tooth loss, those who had lost one tooth recently, and those who had lost two or more teeth.
The results of the examination found:
- Of the participants who had between 25 to 32 remaining permanent teeth, those who had suffered from a recent loss of two or more teeth had a 23 percent higher risk for developing coronary heart disease when compared to those who had lost no teeth.
- Participants who reported losing just one tooth showed no increase in risk.
- When compared to participants that reported losing no teeth, participants who lost two or more teeth had a 16 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease.
- Participants with fewer than 17 permanent teeth remaining at the beginning of the studies had a 25 percent greater risk of developing coronary heart disease when compared to those with between 25 to 32 natural teeth remaining.
Based on these findings, researchers concluded that “among middle-aged adults, a higher number of teeth lost in the recent past may be associated with subsequent risk of coronary heart diseases, independent of the baseline number of natural teeth and traditional risk factors.”
Protecting Your Oral Health Remains Key
As further research continues to find connections linking our oral and overall health, it’s become clear that maintaining a healthy smile means far more than just enjoying strong teeth and gums. To find out more about what future research uncovers regarding this surprising connection, make sure to keep coming to the Sunnyside Dentistry blog as cover future news and breakthroughs.