Dental Check-ups May Reduce Pneumonia Risk, Study Shows

October 27, 2016
Joe Hannan

A new study shows that people who make a habit of going to the dentist twice a year for a check-up contract bacterial pneumonia at lower rates than those who skip check-ups.

Here is a new reason to encourage your patients to keep up with their routine dental cleanings. A new study shows that people who make a habit of going to the dentist twice a year for a check-up contract bacterial pneumonia at lower rates than those who skip check-ups.

This research, which was presented for the first time on Oct. 27 at the annual ID Week conference in New Orleans, LA, sheds new light on how oral health fits into the picture of our overall wellbeing.

“Traditionally, we’ve very much separated, dentistry and medicine, but it’s all part of the same body,” said Michelle Doll, MD, MPH, lead author of the study.

The study was conducted by Dr. Doll and a team of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. It found that among a group of 26,000 people, those who never got dental check-ups had an 86% increased risk of contracting pneumonia compared to those who see a dentist twice annually. The lower pneumonia infection rates may be due to the reduction of bacteria levels in the mouth as a result of routine teeth cleaning, the research suggests.

Doll explained that poor dental hygiene leads to an increased likelihood of the presence of troublesome bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria can be dangerous in terms of their potency or quantity. Through the aspiration process, bacteria can be drawn into our lungs. Breathe in the wrong kind of germ, or a lot of them, and you could trigger pneumonia.

Pneumonia is a serious health threat in the US among people of all ages. It is the leading cause of death among children under the age of 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and contributes to nearly 51,000 deaths annually in the broader population. In 2014, the CDC calculated that pneumonia claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 Americans between the ages of 55 and 64.

Data for this study were gleaned from the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). MEPS tracks the health status of households over the course of two years while incorporating healthcare system data. It also interviews participants as to their perceived health status. The MEPS data specific to dentistry included quantity of dental visits that year, frequency of check-ups, and possession of a dental insurance policy. Pneumonia infection data from MEPS was then compared to the dental care data points. The study controlled for social and demographic factors, as well as comorbidities.

Of the 26,246 people included in the MEPS data, 441 came down with bacterial pneumonia. Analysis of the data by Doll and the researchers yielded two key takeaways. The first, if a person infrequently or never went to the dentist for routine care, there was a statistically significant association with pneumonia infection. The second, if a person lacked dental insurance, there also was an association with catching pneumonia.

For Dr. Doll, the desire to investigate a potential link between basic dental care and pneumonia was a product of the time she spends time working in infectious disease clinics. In these clinics, Doll often sees patients who have trouble with their teeth in addition to other health issues. She says her study highlights the need to expand access to dental care for people like her patients, who she says don’t always have the ability to get the dental help that they need.

“My perception is that when we’re talking about routine dental cleanings, this isn’t a terribly aggressive intervention that would be very resource intensive,” Dr. Doll said. “We should look for ways, even outside of insurance, to provide access for a larger part of our population.”

But just having insurance, according to Dr. Doll, isn’t always enough to ensure adequate dental care. Within the study group, there were people who had dental insurance who contracted pneumonia. She said that barriers to receiving dental care for the insured can include anything from finding a provider who accepts their insurance, to locating a dentist who is within a manageable distance.

“You still need to get somebody to the actual professional.”

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