Brushing Teeth to Keep Heart Disease Away

Atherosclerosis may be slowed as gum health improves through good oral hygiene

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The expression "To have your heart in your mouth” may have a new meaning. Gum health has been shown to influence heart health, and good oral hygiene may even slow hardening of the arteries.

Research has shown that poor dental health and periodontitis (a serious gum infection) may be linked to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries (atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack and stroke.

A new study has confirmed the connection between oral and heart health, finding that reducing the bacteria linked to periodontal disease slowed the development of atherosclerosis.

"Brush and floss your teeth everyday."

Moïse Desvarieux, MD, lead author of this study and associate professor of epidemiology at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City, and her colleagues tracked the oral and cardiovascular health of 420 patients.

These patients were all evaluated for gum infection. The researchers collected plaque samples from teeth and underneath the gums. Plaque is a film, containing millions of bacteria, that builds up on teeth and may cause tooth decay and gum disease.

Dr. Desvarieux and his team analyzed the plaque for bacteria that is linked to periodontal (gum) disease. They also tested samples of gum fluid for interleukin-1β, a marker of inflammation.

Using high resolution ultrasound, the researchers also imaged the carotid arteries (the main arteries in the neck supplying blood to the brain).

At the median follow-up point of three years, the researchers observed that as gum health improved and bacteria related to gum disease dropped in patients, the thickening of arteries slowed.

On the other hand, worsening gum infections corresponded with an increase in artery thickness.

Narrowing of the arteries is measured in terms of intima-medial thickness (IMT). The intima and media are two layers of artery walls.

Among the participants with deteriorating gum health, the researchers noted a 0.1 mm difference in IMT change over three years compared to those who had improving gum health. Earlier studies had found that a 0.033 mm per year increase in carotid IMT (which is about equal to 0.1 mm over three years) may more than double the risk for coronary events.

"When it comes to atherosclerosis, a tenth of a millimeter in the thickness of the carotid artery is a big deal,” said Tatjana Rundek, MD, a co-author of this study and professor at the University of Miami whose lab read the carotid ultrasounds, in a press release.

Scientists have speculated that bacteria in the mouth may trigger immune response and high levels of inflammatory markers. This reaction may in turn start or worsen the inflammatory aspect of atherosclerosis.

Sarah Samaan, MD, cardiologist and physician partner at the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, Texas, told dailyRx News, “We've known for several years now that people with periodontal disease are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, but this study provides important evidence that by treating the gum disease over time, we may in fact improve the health of our blood vessels.”

Dr. Samaan added, “Now we have one more reason to brush at least twice daily and to floss every night. By taking five minutes every day to keep our teeth and gums healthy, we may also lower our chances of developing heart disease and stroke. It's also important to visit the dentist at least every six months to keep problems at bay.”

This study was published online in October in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Review Date: 
November 8, 2013
Last Updated:
November 11, 2013