Dental checkups and your heart

Tooth & Bone

I have a friend – I’ll call her Annie – who’s the picture of good health, and frankly, I wish I were as diligent about keeping healthy as she is. She works out nearly every day. Her diet consists of mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish. She sleeps well and is always on the go, full of vitality.

But there’s one area where Annie just doesn’t take good care of herself. She tells me she hasn’t been to the dentist in more than seven years. So what’s keeping her away? Her teeth look great and she never has tooth or gum pain. She admits it’s a shortcoming she needs to get over, but as far as good health goes, she considers it a back burner issue.

It’s not. Sooner or later Annie may pay a dear price if she doesn’t get regular dental checkups, because in spite of her healthy efforts she could be putting her heart in serious jeopardy.

The weak link

In previous e-Alerts I’ve noted that periodontitis may play a role in the development of heart disease. Periodontitis is a form of gum disease in which the gums and bone that support teeth become infected. About three out of 10 people are diagnosed with periodontitis, mostly in middle age or later years.

The periodontitis/heart disease link recently received further confirmation from research conducted at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

Researchers recruited 161 subjects who were diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome (ACS; a group of symptoms caused by coronary artery disease). Another 161 healthy subjects were recruited for comparison.

When researchers measured bacteria in periodontal pockets between teeth and gums of each subject, total oral bacteria load was higher among ACS subjects, and 26 of 40 different species of bacteria were significantly higher. In addition, deterioration of alveolar bone (the bone that forms sockets around teeth roots) was far more advanced among ACS subjects.

In a press release from the American Academy of Periodontology, lead researcher, Stefan Renvert, D.D.S., Ph.D., speculated on the periodontitis/ACS link: “The amount of periodontal bacteria results in an inflammatory response that elevates the white blood cell counts and high sensitivity C-reactive protein levels.”

Circle the wagons

In the e-Alert “Long in the Tooth” (8/31/06), I told you about a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study that included more than 12,000 subjects. When incidence of periodontitis was evaluated, researchers found that risk of the disease dropped among subjects who practiced one or more of these three healthy behaviors:

  1. Getting regular exercise
  2. Maintaining proper body weight
  3. Eating plenty of nutritious, unrefined foods

So my friend Annie is well on her way to good dental health, as long as she continues diligent oral hygiene at home and begins seeing her dentist on a regular basis.

In addition, there’s a supplement that may add some protection.

In the e-Alert “Heart Floss” (3/23/05), I told you about a UK study that examined 20 subjects – 10 with healthy gums, and 10 with advanced periodontitis. Researchers took blood samples, as well as samples of gingival crevicular fluid, a solution released from crevices under the teeth. Separate analysis of the fluid and blood revealed high levels of the antioxidant glutathione among the healthy subjects, and low levels among those with gum disease.

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that plays a key role in the immune system. Not only does it offer protection against disease, but it may also help keep other antioxidants from oxidizing, enhancing their effectiveness.

Meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables supply nutrients that are precursors of glutathione. And an important amino acid that I’ve often mentioned – N-acetylcysteine (NAC) – boosts to your body’s natural production of glutathione.

NAC supplements can be found in most supplement stores, but check with your doctor first to make sure NAC is a good fit for your daily regimen.

“Bacterial Profile and Burden of Periodontal Infection in Subjects With a Diagnosis of Acute Coronary Syndrome” Journal of Periodontology, Vol. 77, No. 7, 2006,
“New Study Supports Findings that Periodontal Bacteria may be Linked to Heart Disease” American Academy of Periodontology press release, 5/19/06,