Do regular brushing, flossing and professional dental cleanings help prevent heart disease?

The answer is yes, and a recent study by the University of Rochester’s Center for Oral Biology details how some of the bacteria that cause cavities, called Streptococcus mutans, are able to damage the heart.
“This groundbreaking study, which explains how specific bacteria present in the mouth can migrate into the bloodstream and lodge in heart tissue, further validates the decision we made several years ago to offer enhanced benefits for those with certain high risk medical conditions, said Dr. Jed Jacobson, chief science officer and senior vice president of Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana (Delta Dental).

Delta Dental was the first dental plan to recognize the correlation between oral hygiene and the prevention of heart disease by making enhanced benefits available for those at high risk for infective endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart. This disease has one of the highest morbidity rates and is one of the most costly, with about 20 percent of those diagnosed dying from the disease, and many requiring an artificial or other heart transplant.

In 2007, the American Heart Association (AHA) revised its guidelines to indicate that increased emphasis should be placed on maintaining good oral health for patients whose heart disease places them at highest risk for infective endocarditis. An extensive analysis of treatment data from Delta Dental’s Research and Data Institute had a major role in helping the AHA update its guidelines.

“Delta Dental pioneered the use of scientific research to improve our plan designs to help people stay healthier. Our standard benefits provide coverage for up to four cleanings per year for those at high risk for infective endocarditis instead of the typical two, which helps lower the risk for this problem by better controlling bacteria in the mouth,” Jacobson said.

Individuals at high risk for this disease include those with:
•A history of infective endocarditis
•Certain congenital heart defects such as having one ventricle instead of the normal two
•Artificial heart valves
•Heart valve defects caused by acquired conditions like rheumatic heart disease
•Hypertropic cardiomyopathy, which causes abnormal thickening of the heart muscle
•Pulmonary shunts or conduits
•Mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation (blood leakage)

The recent study also clarifies that only certain strains of the bacteria are the culprits.

“With further diagnostic capabilities, such as a swab or spit test, dentists could better target those who are more at risk for the rogue bacteria,” Jacobson added. “However, until that technology is readily available, we want to encourage those with these medical conditions to keep the bacteria in their mouths as low as possible to help prevent infection in the heart.”

Delta Dental is a leader in using evidence-based research to evolve dental plan designs. In 2004, the company became the first to cover the cost of the OralCDx brush biopsy test for the early detection of oral cancer. In 2006, the company introduced enhanced benefits for diabetics and pregnant women with gum disease, for those experiencing kidney failure or who are undergoing dialysis, and for those with suppressed immune systems due to chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, HIV infection, organ transplant, and/or stem cell (bone marrow) transplant.

Because dentists may be able to detect heart disease and more than 120 other diseases, Jacobson recommends visiting the dentist regularly. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, more than 90 percent of all systemic diseases, including heart disease, are linked to oral symptoms – even a sore jaw can indicate an impending heart attack or heart disease, so routine check-ups are critical.