Bisphosphonates reduce osteoporosis, not plaque, researchers say

A team of dental researchers has determined that the use of a class of anti-osteoporosis drugs appears to reduce periodontal disease but not plaque in postmenopausal women.

Their results, which appear in the journal Menopause, indicate that the class of medications, called bisphosphonates, may slow the advance of tooth loss at least, if not tooth decay, in women who suffer from bone loss.

Researchers began the study by recruiting Caucasian women between the ages of 51 and 80, all of whom reported brushing their teeth twice daily and flossing regularly. Half of these participants were taking bisphosphonates for osteoporosis, while the other half were not and had adequate bone density.

The idea was to measure the effect of bisphosphonates on the jawbone, researchers said, but the team discovered that use of the medication appeared to improve periodontal health as well.

Bisphosphonates treat osteoporosis by inhibiting the actions of osteoclasts, which are specialized cells that absorb bone minerals. Long-term use of bisphosphonates has been associated with osteonecrosis of the jaw, a condition in which the jawbone begins to undergo bone death, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

The study's authors, who hail from the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic, said that computed tomography scans detected no osteonecrosis in participants' jaws.

However, those taking bisphosphonates had less separation between tooth and gums and a shallower gum-probing depth than women not taking the medication. This indicated an improvement in the health of the periodontium, the segment of the jaw that holds the teeth in place.

On the other hand, dental plaque did not appear to be reduced by bisphosphonate use. Researchers noted that even with a healthy periodontium, plaque buildup can result in tooth loss anyway.

They recommended that regardless of medication regimen, postmenopausal women should get at least four dental checkups each year, rather than the usual two.

In the U.S., more than 9 million women over the age of 50 have osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.