Preventive dental care and your overall health

When giving blood, the first question you are asked is “have you been to the dentist in the past 3 days?” Obviously, dental care has something to do with your blood, and thereby your overall health. So, what are the connections, and what does it mean for your next dental appointment?

There are two major dental diseases. Tooth decay and gum disease. Both are caused by bacterial infections, and both become more common as we get older. In fact, tooth decay at the gum line, also called root decay, is the most common disease affecting our aging population. Half of Canadians at age 70 will experience root decay.

A recent study reported that root decay was a significant risk factor for a heart attack. Other studies have linked root decay to arrhythmia and stroke.

There are two possible explanations for these associations between root decay and your overall health. One is that the bacteria causing root decay migrate through the blood stream to heart tissues such as valves and arteries. A recent study found that these bacteria on your teeth, were the main bacteria in diseased hearts. This is no surprise. Dentists have known for years that patients with artificial heart valves or predisposed to heart conditions, should take antibiotics before dental surgery.

The second explanation is that both diseased teeth and diseased hearts result from poor nutrition.

The implications for your oral care, and your next dental visit, are important. To start, it is critical to maintain, if not improve, your daily habit of brushing and flossing as these remove some of the bacteria from your teeth. However, studies show that up to half of the bacteria remain on your teeth after brushing, often in those hard-to-reach areas at the gum line and between the teeth. So, a professional dental cleaning and possibly additional preventive care are also needed on a regular basis.

And for those adults who have gum recession, a dry mouth, or are experiencing tooth decay, additional measures may be required to lessen the bacterial load on the teeth. Dental research has developed new antibacterial tooth coatings to help your dentist lower your tooth infections and to prevent tooth decay at the gum line. These new treatments are painless, safe and highly effective.

So your next dental visit begins to take on a new meaning. It not just about your teeth and your gums, its about the bacteria which can affect your oral health, and your overall health. Your dental professional is increasingly attentive to these infections on your teeth and gums, for very good reasons. Ask your dental professional about these new preventive tooth coatings at your next visit.

* Dr. Symington is Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Dentistry and oversees development of an antibacterial tooth coating to prevent root decay.