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Gender, race affect body's immune system response to dental plaque

It's well-known that people who do not take care of their teeth risk long-term damage to their oral health. But what about their overall health?

A new study from the Indiana University School of Dentistry shows that failing to prevent dental plaque could also increase one's risk of heart damage — especially if you are male and African-American. Researchers say the finding can help health providers identify those at greater risk for infections that could adversely affect heart health.

To reach these conclusions, a team of Indiana University researchers studied 128 black and white men and women and found that dental plaque accumulation did not result in a change in total white blood count — a known risk factor for adverse cardiac events. However, in black males the researchers noted a significant increase in the activity of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell and an essential part of the immune system.

The research is unique in that participants were healthy individuals who were asked to neglect oral hygiene for the study, said lead researcher Dr. Michael Kowolik, professor of periodontics and associate dean for graduate education at the IU School of Dentistry. Most studies that attempt to understand the link between oral inflammatory disease and heart disease risk evaluate patients who already have periodontal disease.

"If you get a bacterial infection anywhere in the body, billions of neutrophils come flooding out of your bone marrow to defend against the intruder," explained Dr. Kowolik. "Our observation that with poor dental hygiene white blood cell activity increased in black men but not black women or whites of either sex suggests both gender and racial differences in the inflammatory response to dental plaque."

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