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Study Challenges Gum Disease Link to Heart Disease

Take smokers out of the mix and those with periodontitis are at no greater risk

SATURDAY, Aug. 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Does eliminating gum disease help prevent coronary heart disease?

That's one of the more alarming suggestions that help convince people to floss, but, according to a new study, it's not true.

Many in the periodontal community have upheld the potential link between the two diseases and further asserted the risk could be eliminated by treating the periodontitis, better-known as gum disease.

To find evidence of the link, researchers with the University of Washington in Seattle examined data from 4,027 people who participated in the First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey or NHANES I, Epidemiologic Follow-up Study.

The data included follow-up information taken over a 17-year period on such factors as a first coronary heart disease event and death from heart disease.

In all, 1,238 of the subjects had heart disease "events," 538 of which were fatal. But, after adjusting for various control data, the researchers found that people with and without dental infections had the same risk of heart disease.

"We found no evidence in this study that the elimination of chronic dental infections decreases a person's risk of developing coronary heart disease," says lead author Philippe P. Hujoel, an associate professor at the university's School of Dentistry. His study appears in the July 2001 issue of The Journal of The American Dental Association.

Furthermore, Hujoel says he has a strong suspicion that behind all of the talk linking dental infections with heart disease is the nasty habit of smoking.

"If you look at most of the other major studies, it's only the studies that did not adjust the data to take into consideration the subjects who smoked that show an association," he explains.

"They have shown an association between gum disease and stroke, coronary heart disease, low birth weight, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. All of these diseases are smoking-related," he says.

And he adds: "The most consistent and unified explanation is that, yes, you will see associations between gum disease and smoking-related diseases if you don't adjust sufficiently for differences in smoking."

But Michael McGuire, president of the American Academy of Periodontology, suggests that previous research should be weighed to give Hujoel's study a context.

"Whenever you have emerging science, there are going to be conflicting reports. It's only natural. So you have to look at the preponderance of the literature and go with what you see the most of," McGuire maintains.

"Certainly, there are far more studies suggesting a link between periodontal disease and heart disease than otherwise," he adds.

And until the connection is either firmly proved or disproven, he calls it "prudent medicine" not to ignore your periodontal health.

What To Do

Hujoel's study clearly contradicts the current American Academy of Periodontology's thoughts on the link between periodontal disease and heart disease.

And the American Academy of Periodontology offers more information on Connections Between Gum Disease and Other Health Problems.

Read more about cleaning your teeth and gums at this American Dental Association site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Philippe P. Hujoel, Ph.D., associate professor, School of Dentistry, University of Washington, Seattle; Michael McGuire, president, American Academy of Periodontology; July 2001 The Journal of The American Dental Association
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