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Regular dental visits and cleanings lessen the risk of pneumonia, study says

Michelle Doll, M.D.
Michelle Doll, M.D.

People who don’t visit the dentist for preventive care have an 86 percent greater risk of contracting pneumonia than those who visit two or more times a year. That seemingly uncommon link is the result of a study on oral health and its propensity to cause pneumonia. The analysis found that regular dentist cleanings and check-ups reduce the risk of bacterial pneumonia, presumably by decreasing the amounts of harmful mouth bacteria that could [track into the lungs and] cause an infection. 

VCU Health epidemiologist Michelle Doll, M.D., led the study, which also addressed the lack of access to dental care. Study findings were presented Oct. 26–30 at the National Conference for the Infectious Disease Society of America. Doll’s project was chosen by conference organizers to be featured in a press conference and audio release that publicized the event.

More than 26,000 national survey participants were included in the analysis, which surveyed the general population and those considered high risk. In her work with the latter, Doll said she has witnessed how important teeth are to overall health and has seen patients with serious infections from bad teeth. Characterizations for those considered high risk include age and patients with co-morbidities. 

With this research Doll is hopeful that education and the possible classification of dental care as a preventive health service will keep more patients from experiencing pneumonia. It is contracted by nearly one million people every year. 

“The information provides evidence that dental care as an ongoing healthy behavior has potential systemic benefits,” she said.

Oral hygiene has increasingly been associated with other health issues like stroke and cardiovascular disease. However, people who are vigilant about their dental health are likely cautious about other areas of their health too, the study suggests. 

As part of the research, dental patients and their respective providers were followed for a two-year period and surveyed for information about dental visits, visit frequency and dental insurance. Doll said she was shocked to discover that even those with dental insurance were not exempt from getting sick. She worked with Norman V. Carroll, Ph.D., School of Pharmacy, Scott Ratliff, Division of Epidemiology, and Ph.D. student Kristen Kelly on the study.

Maintaining healthy teeth is important for more than oral health.

“We expected to see that those with dental insurance were not contracting pneumonia, but this association was not significant,” she said. “In the future, we would like to further explore factors that determine dental care usage and how people utilize their benefits.”

Education and advocacy will be key, Doll said, along with providing future cost effectiveness analyses that dictate the financial benefits of good health.

“We can council patients, especially those who are at high risk for pneumonia, that maintaining healthy teeth is important for more than oral health,” she said.

  

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