Regular dental visits may do more than keep your chompers shiny. New research suggests that getting your teeth professionally cleaned and scraped or "scaled" just once may help reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Researchers looked at more than 100,000 adults in the Taiwan national health insurance database -- half of whom had never had their teeth scaled and half of whom had.
They found that those who had undergone at least one cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist in their lifetime had a 24-percent lower risk of heart attack and a 13-percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who had never gone. The association was particularly pronounced among those who sought a scaling -- the full cleaning and scraping process -- at least once a year.
"We knew that dental health contributed to heart attack and stroke, but didn't know that tooth scaling would have more effect on other places in the body and not just the teeth and mouth -- especially not in subjects that did not have dental problems," said Dr. Zu-Yin Chen, a member of the Taipei Veterans General Hospital's division of cardiology and one of the study's authors. The research was presented Sunday at the American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions.
Chen suggested that chronic inflammation was most likely behind the association. She explained that prior research has suggested teeth scaling reduces inflammation-causing bacteria and improves blood vessel function, thus keeping blood flowing properly.
But the new research has limitations. While none of the study's participants had a history of heart attack or stroke at its start, the researchers were not able to adjust for other key risk factors, including race, weight and smoking.
"They have identified an interesting association, but they haven't explained why it is happening," said Dr. Myerburg, a professor of medicine and physiology in the cardiovascular division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"It could be direct, in the sense that inflammation in the gums may trigger inflammation in the heart. Or it may be indirect in that the population that is compulsive about scaling is also compulsive about other health care. They're doing good things for their heart at the same time that they're doing good things for their gums."
Chen said that a next-step, research-wise, would be to look at how other modifiable factors like weight and smoking affect their results. She said researchers are also considering whether tooth scaling might lower effects in other diseases, too. Studies have suggested that people with gum disease were more likely to develop heart disease and deliver preterm babies, but according to National Institute of Health's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, it is unclear whether gum disease actually causes these issues and whether controlling it prevents them.
As such research continues, experts agree it can't hurt to play it safe.
"What I think is it's a good idea to take care of your gums. And scaling can be an important part of that," Myerburg said.