A new study reinforces the theory that reducing gum disease reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack. A team from Columbia University found those with periodontal disease were more likely to suffer from atherosclerosis – a narrowing of blood vessels that often precedes a stroke or heart attack.

The researchers measured bacteria levels in the mouths of 657 people with no history of stroke or heart attack. They also measured the thickness of the carotid artery, to identify atherosclerosis.

Those subjects who had a higher level of the specific bacteria that causes periodontal disease also had an increased carotid artery thickness, although other bacteria found in the mouth had no effect on atherosclerosis. The researchers suggest that this bacteria migrates throughout the body via the bloodstream and stimulates the immune system, causing inflammation that results in clogging of the arteries.

The link between periodontal disease, stroke and vascular health has been suggested by previous studies. Lead researcher, Dr Moïse Desvarieux said, ‘This is the most direct evidence yet that gum disease may lead to stroke or cardiovascular disease. And because gum infections are preventable and treatable, taking care of your oral health could very well have a significant impact on your cardiovascular health.’ He added, ‘We will continue to study these participants to determine if atherosclerosis continues over time and is definitely associated with periodontal disease.’

Judy O’Sullivan, medical spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC, ‘Inflammation may prove to be a key factor in the development of coronary heart disease. However, it may be too simplistic to say that periodontal infection alone is the issue of concern rather than inflammation in general, as inflammation is often associated with other risk factors for coronary heart disease, such as smoking, poor diet and low income. We welcome studies which add evidence to this growing area of research and we would encourage people to follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce their risk of heart disease.’