WEDNESDAY, March 29, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Here's another reason to get flossing: New research suggests that gum disease is linked with earlier death in older women.
"Older women may be at higher risk for death because of their periodontal condition," study author Michael LaMonte said in a news release from the Journal of the American Heart Association.
LaMonte is research associate professor in epidemiology at the University at Buffalo, in New York. His team published its findings in the journal on March 29.
One cardiologist said the study raises an intriguing notion.
"Dental hygiene is an important part of our patients' overall health, and perhaps with this study it may prompt us to further investigate its direct impact on the heart," said Dr. Rachel Bond, associate director for Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
According to background information from the researchers, gum disease affects nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults aged 60 and older. Complete tooth loss affects about one-third of U.S. adults 60 and older, and often results from gum disease.
But can poor gum health affect longevity? To find out, LaMonte's team tracked data on more than 57,000 women aged 55 and older.
Over nearly seven years, more than 3,800 of the women died, with 3,589 of those deaths due to heart disease.
According to the researchers, a history of gum disease was associated with a 12 percent higher risk of death from any cause.
Some women had particularly poor dental health, losing all of their teeth over the study period. These women also tended to have more heart disease risk factors, were less educated and had fewer dental appointments. They also had a 17 percent increased risk of death from any cause, the researchers said.
However, there did not appear to be an association between gum disease or tooth loss and increased risk of death from heart disease, the researchers added.
Reviewing the findings, Bond stressed that a direct link between gum disease and heart disease is far from certain.
"Although this study highlights a valid point, it's not set up to prove any cause-and-effect relationship," she noted. So just because you're having more dental issues, that "doesn't mean you are setting yourself up for a heart attack," she said.
Dr. Ronald Burakoff is chair of dental medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. He said the study's large sample size helps bolster its validity, but he concurred with Bond that the research can only point to an association.
"Additional studies are needed to see if treatment of periodontal conditions reduces the death rate for postmenopausal women, which would allow the researchers to establish a direct cause-and-effect," Burakoff said.
Still, dental hygiene may have some role to play in overall health, he added.
"Perhaps the most important take-away message for postmenopausal women is that keeping your teeth has implications for avoiding [early] death," Burakoff said.
The U.S. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has more on gum disease.