TUESDAY, Oct. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Older women who get regular dental care are about one-third less likely to suffer from heart disease than those who don't, new findings suggest.

The study doesn't prove that dental care directly improves the heart health of women by lowering the risk of conditions like heart attack and stroke, and dental care seemed to have no benefit for men at all in terms of heart disease, but even so, the study authors were still impressed by the findings.

The study, which was released online Sept. 29 in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of Health Economics, analyzed the medical records of nearly 7,000 people aged 44 to 88 who had participated in another study. The data from that study had been collected between 1996 and 2004.

The authors of the new study came to their conclusions after reviewing the data and adjusting the numbers so they wouldn't be thrown off by large or small numbers of people who were, among other things, overweight or users of alcohol and tobacco.

"We think the findings reflect differences in how men and women develop cardiovascular disease," study co-author Dr. Stephen Brown, a obstetrician/gynecologist resident at West Virginia University, said in a news release from the University of California at Berkeley. "Other studies suggest that estrogen has a protective effect against heart disease because it helps prevent the development of atherosclerosis. It's not until women hit menopause, around age 50 to 55, that they start catching up with men."

Dr. Maria Emanuel Ryan, a professor of oral biology and pathology at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., said she has seen signs of a link between dental care and heart disease in her own practice. The study, she said, "confirms the findings of some of the studies conducted in the insurance industry, which suggest that the medical costs for cardiac care and diabetes are reduced in patients who have regular dental visits."

There does appear to be a connection between gum disease, in particular, and heart disease. Research suggests that chronic inflammation causes heart disease, Ryan noted, and gum disease "is the most common chronic inflammatory condition in the world. Unfortunately, periodontitis -- or gum disease -- is often a silent disease that goes undetected and untreated."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on dental health.