Each year, over six hundred thousand Americans suffer from the brain attack known as stroke. Of those 600,000 a staggering 130,000 will not survive. The third most common cause of death in the US, strokes are often difficult to predict. Like heart attacks, strokes come on suddenly, leaving the victim little time to get help. Unfortunately, for an event like a stroke where time is of the essence, even the slightest delay can mean the difference between life and death. Now, a recent study has found a link between strokes and gum health. Dr. Stephen Hill of Allen, Texas weighs in on what this could mean for oral health as well as for stroke prevention.
When you think of gum health, you probably don’t think about stroke risk, but a new study by the University of South Carolina School of Medicine may soon change that. Though not the first study of its kind, this most recent study revealed something previous studies failed to catch: a possible link between the severity of a person’s gum disease and their stroke risk.
"The study found that the more severe the patient’s gum disease, the higher their risk for having a stroke," Hill said. "For people with very mild gum disease, their risk of stroke increased by 1.9 times. For people with moderate to severe gum disease, their risk of stroke increased by around 2.2 times over the general population. This is called a dose-effect relationship."
Unfortunately, despite researchers knowing this relationship exists, they have yet to truly understand what -if anything- it means. In other words, is the increased risk truly due to the gum disease itself, perhaps caused by the inflammation or bacteria, or could it simply be that people who allow their gum disease to reach high or moderate levels are more likely to neglect their own medical care, and may have other factors contributing to stroke without even realizing it.
"For example, people who smoke are at a higher risk of stroke, as well as a higher risk for gum disease," Hill said. "So maybe the gum disease and the stroke are only related because they are a side effect of smoking."
Another illness can contribute to both gum disease and stroke is diabetes.
"It’s been estimated that around 8 million Americans have diabetes and don’t even know it, so obviously, those people are not treating their diabetes," Hill said. "If they’re also not visiting the dentist regularly, there’s a good chance they too may not realize they’re at an increased risk for stroke."
The next step in this puzzling connection is for researchers to figure out if by treating patients with gum disease they can somehow lower the patient’s risk of stroke.
"They have already found that patients who visit the dentist regularly have lower risks for everything from stroke to heart disease. so it certainly seems like evidence of a link is very strong here," Hill said.