The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants, and It Wants You to Brush Your Teeth

Part of avoiding heart disease might involve brushing your teeth, suggests a study published this week. Researchers in Korea have found a clear link between good oral health and a lower chance of heart irregularities and serious heart failure.

The study, published Sunday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, looked at the health records of more than 150,000 middle aged to elderly Korean residents who had taken part in an earlier screening program and had no pre-existing heart disease. As part of their screening, the volunteers provided information about their oral health habits and had their teeth examined by a dentist. Then the researchers tracked their heart health over the next decade using their insurance data (in Korea, everyone’s health coverage is provided and managed by the government).

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During that time, 3 percent of volunteers experienced a case of atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heart beat, while 4.9 percent experienced heart failure at least once. But even after accounting for other known factors for heart disease like age, body mass index, and smoking history, the researchers found that people who had reported better oral hygiene were less likely to develop these heart problems.

Those who brushed their teeth at least three times a day, for instance, were 12 percent less likely to have heart failure, and people who had lost a substantial majority of their teeth (22 teeth or more) were 35 percent more likely to have heart failure, after accounting for other factors.

These sorts of population studies can only indirectly point to a link between two things, not directly show that brushing your teeth will protect you from heart disease. And it’s worth emphasizing that the potential impact of a healthy mouth on your heart is likely to be relatively small: 4.17 percent of people with gum disease in this study developed heart failure, compared to 3.95 percent of people without gum disease, for instance.

But this isn’t the first research to establish a clear relationship between oral and heart health, a link that has been found in different populations across the world. While your teeth and your cardiac system may seem unrelated, there are actually reasons to think they are connected. One common theory, referenced by the authors, argues that frequent teeth brushing prevents a biofilm of bacteria from building up in our gums, which then lessens the chance these bacteria could migrate to the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body. The chronic inflammation seen with gum disease could indirectly weaken the body and heart as well. And both gum and heart disease are linked to similar risk factors, such as smoking, getting older, and diabetes.

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Organizations like the American Heart Association have shied away from recommending that people keep their teeth healthy to prevent heart disease, at least not until we get more conclusive evidence for a causative link. This study doesn’t provide that smoking gun, but there are already plenty of good reasons to brush your teeth regularly and visit the dentist, such as getting to keep your teeth in your later years.