We have always known that maintaining healthy gums is the key to good oral health but a recent study done by researchers at Columbia University in New York shows that healthier gums may also reduce the risk of heart disease. The results of this study which were published in a recent online issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association link healthy gums to slower progression of atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
According to Moise Desvarieux, associate professor of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Health and lead author of the study, “These results are important because atherosclerosis progressed in parallel with both clinical periodontal disease and the bacterial profiles in the gums. This is the most direct evidence yet that modifying the periodontal bacterial profile could play a role in preventing or slowing both diseases.”
The participants of this study included 420 adults from northern Manhattan between the ages of 60 and 76 who were part of the Oral Infections and Vascular Disease Epidemiology Study (INVEST). Each participant was examined for oral infection and artery thickness at the beginning of the study and reexamined after an average of three years. Over 5000 plaque samples were gathered from the oral infection exams and analyzed for 11 strains of bacteria that are present in periodontal disease along with seven control bacteria. The researchers assessed the extent of atherosclerosis by measuring artery thickness or intima-medial thickness (IMT) in both carotid arteries using high-resolution ultrasound scans.
Results: Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
The results showed that healthier gums along with smaller proportions of bacteria associated with periodontal disease coincided with slowed progression of atherosclerosis according to the IMT measurements. Even when adjusted for factors such as body mass index, cholesterol levels, diabetes, and smoking, the results showed no significant change. The participants who experienced a decline in gum health over the three years had a 0.1 mm increase in the thickness of the carotid artery compared to participants that improved their gum health.
Study co-author Panos N. Papapanou, professor at Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine, claims, “Our results show a clear relationship between what is happening in the mouth and thickening of the carotid artery, even before the onset of full-fledged periodontal disease. This suggests that incipient periodontal disease should not be ignored.”
The Next Step
While this study made an important connection between gum disease and thickening carotid arteries, Professor Desvarieux recognizes the next step, “It is critical that we continue to follow these patients to see if the relationship between periodontal infections and atherosclerosis carries over to clinical events like heart attack and stroke and test if modifying the periodontal flora will slow the progression of atherosclerosis.”
Remember to visit your dentist regularly to keep your gums healthy, even if you’re not at risk of atherosclerosis.