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Posted by: The Probe 10th March 2021
In the UK and throughout the western world, stroke remains a leading cause of death and disability. In fact, roughly 100,000 people in the UK suffer from a stroke every year, leading to 38,000 deaths.[i]
But why do strokes happen and what can dental hygienists and dental therapists do to help prevent people suffering from one? There’s an intrinsic link between oral health and the risk of stroke that means professionals can make a significant difference.
Why strokes happen
In simple terms, a stroke is when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, restricting the supply of oxygen and nutrients and causing the brain to malfunction. This is a fairly rapid response, and a stroke quickly causes considerable irreversible damage if not treated in time.
There are two main causes of stroke – the most common of which is a blood clot forming and preventing the flow of blood. In rare cases, a burst blood vessel supplying the brain can also be the cause.[ii]
There are many potential reasons why someone may be at a higher risk of stroke. Links have been made between stroke and unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, smoking and high alcohol intake. However, another interesting link is that individuals suffering from periodontitis are also at a higher risk.[iii]
This is thought to be because of the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria causing the periodontitis. Those with periodontitis are at higher risk of blood vessels hardening (atherosclerosis), which in turn raises the risk of blood clots forming. Indeed, when examining the brains of stroke victims, one study found that the majority of sufferers had bacteria present in their brains that are most commonly found in the mouth. This suggests that these bacteria entered the blood stream through the gingivae and then made their way to the brain where the blockage occurred.[iv]
Educate and help lower the risk
Dental hygienists and dental therapists are well placed to help patients reduce their risk of stroke. By treating periodontitis and making it manageable, you can help ensure that less of these harmful bacteria enter the bloodstream. Furthermore, a deep clean can help patients and make them more aware of their own gum health, encouraging them to perform better cleaning at home.
Plus, as part of our role is to educate and to inform, it’s a good opportunity to point out this risk to patients, especially if they are not keeping on top of their oral health. You can even link this to other advice about stopping smoking and eating a healthier diet and explain how each of these just makes the risk higher – the threat of stroke is very real so it’s important that patients understand how their behaviour is linked to this.
Information and action
In the end, stroke is one of the biggest killers in the UK, and this means that more people should be aware of why it occurs and what measures they can take to reduce the risk. Suffering from a stroke is, in the majority of cases, a life-altering event, but with education, advice and regular deep cleans from a dental hygienist or dental therapist, people will be able to remove the risk factor that is periodontitis, giving them a better chance of a healthy future.
[i] National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. NICEimpact Stroke. Link: https://www.nice.org.uk/Media/Default/About/what-we-do/Into-practice/measuring-uptake/NICE-Impact-stroke.pdf [Last accessed December 20].
[ii] NHS Overview. Stroke. Link: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stroke/ [Last accessed December 20].
[iii] Healthline. What We Know About The Link Between Gum Disease and Your Risk of a Stroke. Link: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/gum-disease-may-predict-stroke-risk [Last accessed December 20].
[iv] Heart.org. Mouth Bacteria Found in Stroke Patients’ Brains. What Does It Mean? Link: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/05/23/mouth-bacteria-found-in-stroke-patients-brains-what-does-it-mean [Last accessed December 20].
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