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Posted on May 31, 2010 in zeitgeist | 0 comments

Quick! Brush your teeth!

It’s nothing new to be skeptical about medical research and, although I’ve never come over all Ben Goldacre before, a story last week finally broke my resolve.

So, as the BBC summarised:

People who fail to brush their teeth twice a day are putting themselves at risk of heart disease, research suggests.”

Suggests“. Mmmm. There’s an alarm bell right away. Don’t get me wrong, if spurious research suggests that eating chocolate makes you live longer, red wine makes your hair grow back or watching football makes you more virile I’m all for it. So don’t label me as a research naysayer right away.

Just that I think that this sort of research is, well, flawed. Or, more to the point, the reporting of it is. There are no hard and fast conclusions here, there is nothing definitive, only ifs buts and maybes. OK, so maybe they needed to get some coverage to secure more funding and what better way than to target one of Scotland’s main killers. Let’s be clear, I have very personal reasons for an improvement in the condition of Scottish hearts. So I wholeheartedly ( see what I did there? ) support anything that improves things but, and here’s the thing, can we believe it?

If you can stop yourself from brushing your teeth while clutching your left arm long enough to read to the bottom of the BBC website coverage it quite rightly says:

However, it is complicated by the fact that poor oral hygiene is often associated with other well known risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking and poor diet.

When I first heard the story on BBC Breakfast last week my instant reaction was “well, of course you’ll observe that coz if you’re dumb enough not to brush your teeth then there is a good chance you’ll not look after your heart either.

To be fair, they do say:

“The researchers said more work is needed to confirm if poor oral health directly causes heart disease or is a marker of risk.”

Well duh, really? If that really is that case, shut up and come back when you’ve proved something. This one statement alone means you have no valid argument to get a headline spot on the BBC News. Quiet news day? No harm in supporting incomplete research for something an incontrovertibly obvious as brushing your teeth?

This kind of research seems to only  mention the social, cultural aspects in passing. Let’s be honest, in Scotland it can’t be that hard to line up any number of factors to a likelihood of heart disease. I’m prepared to bet that you could prove, by the same measures, that having a tattoo makes you more likely to have a heart problem because “umm, maybe, the ink goes in your blood or something?” – which is really all the direct proof this research seems to have.

In the end, no harm is done here. Whatever reason people use for looking after their teeth has to be good? Maybe further funding for this research is good, so if this coverage helps that then why not?

I only have two concerns.

  1. If you are dumb enough not to brush your teeth then you are dumb enough to read into this announcement that, as long as you brush your teeth, you can do whatever else you like and your heart will be fine. An exaggeration sure, but you get my point.
  2. There is a slight whiff of populace management here. What better way to get people to brush their teeth than to tell them it will stop them collapsing in the street? Bit extreme? Sure. But what other reason to make a broad, unsubstantiated statement at this stage of the research? The powers that be have to herd the sheep somehow and, as well as the well-meaning plot lines in Eastenders, this is maybe the next best thing to get eejits to look after themselves.

It’s bank holiday and everyone else is having fun. Grumble, grumble, complain. And I had to blog about something else to stop this turning solely into an advert for Edinburgh Zoo :-).

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