If you’re worried about heart disease, you can easily spend thousands of dollars each year trying to prevent it. Many people end up paying hand-over-fist for prescription medicines or spend money on shelves full of healthy cookbooks. They purchase fitness machines for their home and pricey gym memberships.
What if you don’t have to? A number of recent studies suggest that you may already have a cheap and powerful weapon against heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular disease conditions. This tool costs less than $5 and is sitting on your bathroom counter—your toothbrush.
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“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 Cam, 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 is 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). 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.
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 Desvarieuz, from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It’s not a connection that people naturally think of.”
Desvariuex 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 their mouth were more likely to have atherosclerosis in the carotid artery in the neck. Clogging of the carotid arteries can lead to stroke.
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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 of stroke, depending on the location of the blockage.
Note: All plaque is not alike. The plaques in your arteries have nothing to do with the dental plaque that your dental hygienist scrapes off of 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.
[Related: What is Periodontal Maintenance?]