Tooth decay is arguably one of the most common diseases in the world, and one of the most ignored. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 90 percent of adults ages 20-64 have, or have had cavities. Around 26% of adults of the same age range still have decay that is untreated. It would be interesting to look at how the statistics would change, however, if people knew all of the many other health issues that dental decay has been shown to be closely correlated to.
Tooth decay has been linked to:
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Respiratory infections
- Erectile dysfunction
- Pregnancy and infertility complications
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
But what are the chances that tooth decay increases the risk of having a stroke?
What is a stroke?
Strokes are an unfortunate and common incident that causes damage to the brain, and sometimes the heart, by a disruption of blood flow. There are two types of strokes. Ischemic Strokes occur from a blocked artery. Hemorrhagic Strokes occur from a blood vessel that has leaked or burst. Both are life threatening, as the brain is being deprived of oxygen and nutrients, A person who is having or had a stroke needs to be treated immediately. Currently, they are the leading cause of long-term disabilities in the US. Strokes can be treatable and more importantly, preventable. The National Stroke Association recommends taking preventative measures such as eating healthy, losing weight and exercising, lowering blood pressure, treating diabetes, and other healthy lifestyle choices. So how might dental decay be linked to the increased risk of strokes?
Research performed in 2016 has shown an association between hemorrhagic strokes and a particular oral bacteria that is commonly found in dental decay called Streptococcus mutans. More than a quarter of the patients who were part of this study with this specific kind of stroke had this kind of bacteria present in their saliva. Scientists and doctors theorize that this bacteria binds to the blood vessels and causes hemorrhages in the brain.
Dr. Robert P. Friedland, MD, a co-author of this study, urges the importance of oral health and its effects on the overall health of the brain and heart. “The study and related work in our labs have shown that oral bacteria are involved in several kinds of stroke, including brain hemorrhages and strokes that lead to dementia.” Friedland’s study also goes to explain how roughly 10% of the population carries this kind of bacteria, and that it has been proven to be linked to causing tooth decay.
Multiple studies performed in Japan and China also found a connection between patients who had suffered from either ischemic or hemorrhagic strokes and ones that had fewer than 24 teeth. While it is almost impossible to rule out other factors and pre-existing health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and unhealthy lifestyle habits, it should be noted that identifying tooth loss and oral infections could be a good indicator for patients who are more at risk for a stroke. Periodontal disease is the leading cause for tooth loss, which lends itself easily to the theory that it could be related.
After reading these studies, it’s easy to see how dental decay could possibly increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and many other illnesses. So what can people do to protect themselves?
The best way to protect yourself from tooth decay, and the increased risk of a stroke, is to prevent tooth decay itself. Creating good oral hygiene habits, eating healthy foods, and regularly seeing your dentist can greatly contribute to good oral, and overall health.
Good Oral Hygiene Habits
- Ideally you should brush your teeth twice a day; once in the morning, and once at night.
- When you brush your teeth, make sure you don’t rush the process. You should spend at least two minutes brushing your teeth, using circular motions and reaching all surfaces of each tooth.
- Consider springing for an electric toothbrush. The general opinion is that, if used properly, they are better at removing plaque and reducing the risks of gum disease.
- Replace your toothbrush or toothbrush heads regularly.
- Make sure to floss often, the recommended amount is daily. According to Colgate, if you’re doing both correctly, it doesn’t matter if you floss or brush first.
- Ask your dentist which mouthwash is right for you, and how often you should use it. Depending on how much saliva you naturally produce, how sensitive your teeth are, or if you have any dental restorations your dentist will be able to guide you in the right direction.
Healthy Foods for a Healthy Mouth
- Cheese & Yogurt – Cheese, yogurt and other dairy products contain plenty of healthy nutrients such as protein and calcium. These nutrients help to strengthen tooth enamel, making it harder for bacteria to settle in and create cavities. Yogurt also usually comes with a good amount of probiotics which contain good bacteria.
- Leafy Greens – Seriously, when are leafy greens not on the list of healthy foods to incorporate into your diet? High in calcium, vitamin B, and folic acid, greens such as spinach and kale are a great food item to help keep your mouth healthy.
- Apples & Carrots – Crunchy foods such as apples and carrots help the mouth create saliva which works to wash away food, bad bacteria, and all while stimulating your gums! Not to mention, they are full of fiber and good vitamins.
- Celery Sticks – Not only does celery contain vitamins A and C, its fibrous texture acts as an almost natural toothbrush. It works to scrape away food and bacteria, and contains a lot of water to help wash it away.
- Almonds – Almonds are a great source of protein and calcium! A handful of them makes a wonderful snack. Add them to a salad, or on top of yogurt for some double “mouth-healthy” food action.
- Water – This one is a no-brainer. Water is one of the most important things you can put in your body for your overall health. Try cutting back on sugary drinks such as soda and juice.
Regular Visits to the Dentist
- Remembering to see your dentist regularly for an exam and a routine cleaning is such an important step in keeping your oral health in good standing.
- Fixing damaged or decaying teeth may not be fun, but will help reduce the chances of cavities or infection spreading to other teeth. Talk to your dental provider about fillings, crowns, and other restorations that may work best for your specific situation. If dental decay could increase the risk of stroke, it will be better to tackle any issues head-on rather than waiting until they get worse.
- According to the American Dental Association, the frequency in which you should get your teeth cleaned entirely depends on your current oral health. Some people would benefit to see the dentist more regularly, sometimes even four times a year. Others might only need to make a visit once a year. Your dentist and dental hygienist will be able to tailor your schedule to your needs.
When it comes to your health, it is always better to be safe than sorry. While there is no solid proof that tooth decay can increase the risk of having a stroke, the studies have all at least shown an alarming relation that shouldn’t be ignored.