U.S. researchers who followed healthy male veterans for up to 24 years found that older men who ate more high-fibre fruits were less likely to show signs of gum disease.
Gum disease, which becomes more common with age, can include bleeding gums, receding gums, tartar build-up and tooth loss.
For more than 600 men participating in a long-running Veterans Affairs dental study, tooth loss and a 24 percent lower risk of bone loss associated with receding gums. The apparent benefit wasn't seen in men younger than 65.
High-fibre fruits like bananas, apples and prunes were the only ones that seemed to offer protection.
The new study, conducted by researchers at the Boston University School of Dental Medicine, followed 625 healthy men from the Boston area for an average of 15 years. Researchers first assessed participants' dental health in 1984 and every three to five years after that.
Before each examination, men filled out a questionnaire about their daily intake of certain high-fibre foods -- those that contained more than 2.5 grams of dietary fiber per serving. The list includes bananas, apples, oranges, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, spinach, peanuts, oatmeal and other grains.
In men aged 65 and older, the researchers found that each additional serving of high-fibre fruit was associated with a 14 percent lower risk of erosion of the part of the jaw bone that supports the teeth, a five percent lower risk of gum recession and a 12 percent lower likelihood of tooth loss.
Eating high-fibre vegetables and grains did not significantly reduce the men's risk of gum disease.
The study doesn't prove that the high-fibre fruits lowered the men's gum-disease risk. A fruit-filled diet could be a sign of some other factor such as high vitamin intake, an overall healthy lifestyle, more frequent flossing, or even less smoking -- any of which could play a role in gum health.
The researchers are not yet clear about why high-fibre foods, especially fruits, would lead to less gum disease if they are involved. One possibility is that foods high in fibre, which often require more chewing, could increase saliva production, which would remove harmful bacteria from the mouth.
Dietary fibre might also help reduce gum disease by controlling blood sugar and lowering blood pressure. (Poorly controlled blood sugar and high blood pressure are both risk factors for gum disease.)
The researchers note that the results are too preliminary to recommend relying on apples and oranges in place of good dental care.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, online February 8, 2012.
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