We have talked before about the link between oral health problems, especially gum disease, and overall health problems such as heart disease. Now researchers have added a critical piece to this connection.
A new study shows that children who have dental problems are more likely to have heart disease risk factors as adults almost 30 years later. As a family dentistry practice, we want to help protect your children’s hearts by protecting their teeth and gums.
Linking Childhood Oral Health to Adult Heart Risk
For this study, researchers looked at 755 children starting in 1980, when the children were 6,9, or 12 years old. At this point, children had their oral health examined for signs of oral health problems, in this case defined as cavities, filled teeth, bleeding gums, and deep pockets between their teeth and gums. Less than 5% had no signs of oral disease, 6% had one sign, and 17% had two signs, 38% had three signs, and 34% had all four signs.
Then researchers followed up with the children in 2001 and 2007, when their cardiovascular health was evaluated. Among the heart disease risk factors they looked at was the intima-media thickness (IMT), basically measuring the thickness of the two internal layers of the artery. This measurement tells us whether a person is accumulating plaque in the interior of the arteries, which is an early stage of arterial scarring and hardening. Hardened arteries are linked to many cardiovascular problems, including stroke and heart attack.
Researchers found that kids who had even one sign of oral disease were twice as likely to have thicker arteries as adults. The risk factor was basically the same for all oral disease signs, as well as if all four signs were present. Each individual sign was independently associated with enlarged IMT, even after correction for 31 different cardiovascular risk factors, such as cholesterol.
Limitations of the Study
Although this study presents some convincing evidence, it’s not without its flaws. One of the big flaws is that the subjects didn’t have their oral health examined as adults. We don’t have that piece of data to help inform our conclusion. Plus, while the study included many risk factors, it wasn’t able to include current diet, which can greatly modify oral health and heart disease risk.
Still, the study is a strong piece of evidence showing the long-term connection between oral health and overall health.
Take Oral Health Seriously from a Young Age
This study shows us that oral health problems as children can have very far-reaching consequences. The link is likely oral bacteria. Oral bacteria can travel to the arteries where they attach to arterial walls and develop populations–living oral bacteria are often found in arterial plaque.
Oral bacteria also produce a special kind of fat, which is distinct from the fat we normally find in our foods. This fat is found in arterial plaque. Oral infections that follow us from our childhood have a lot of time to colonize and clog our arteries. It’s important to try to head them off by ensuring kids get good dental care with regular cleanings and checkups.