Brushing your teeth could help you avoid heart disease. Having clean teeth and healthy gums may cut your chances of atherosclerosis.

That could make your toothbrush a weapon against heart disease and stroke. Keep that in mind as you get ready to celebrate matters of the heart this Valentine's Day.

Gingivitis (search) is an infection of the gums usually caused by poor oral hygiene. Gums become inflamed, swollen, and bleed.

Bacteria within plaque (which forms on teeth) lead to chronic inflammation of the gum line and tooth loss. Chronic inflammation caused by periodontal disease (search) has been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (search).

Every day, an estimated 2,600 people in the U.S. die of heart disease, says the American Heart Association. That's an average of one death every 34 seconds. Every 45 seconds, someone in the U.S. suffers a stroke — or about 700,000 people this year.

Heart attack and stroke can strike anyone. Each year, heart disease kills 150,000 people younger than 65, says the AHA.

Mouth-Heart Link

The new study was conducted by Moise Desvarieux, MD, PhD, and colleagues. It appears in the Feb. 8 issue of the journal Circulation.

Previous research has also found that brushing, flossing and taking care of your teeth and gums is good for your heart. But those studies examined topics like tooth loss, and not the mouth's bacteria, say the researchers.

Participants were 657 Hispanic, black or white New Yorkers. All were at least 55 years old. None had suffered a stroke, heart attack or chronic inflammatory condition. To ensure economic diversity, subjects were enrolled from five zip codes in northern Manhattan.

Participants kept records of tooth brushing and flossing during the study, and their mouths were examined. They reported smoking and physical activity habits, and had blood samples taken for measurements of inflammation.

The participants' blood vessel wall thickness was also measured. The thickness of the carotid artery wall — the neck's major artery — is used as a measure of atherosclerosis (search). Studies have shown this to be associated with coronary heart disease and stroke risk.

The mouth is home to hundreds of bacterial species. The researchers focused on three kinds of bacteria: those known to cause gum disease, those not linked to gum disease and those that might affect gum disease.

Gum Disease, Heart Disease

Participants who had a dominance of bacteria that cause gum disease had thicker carotid arteries.

Taking into account other risk factors that might contribute to atherosclerosis did not change the results.

How do bacteria in the mouth affect the heart? Possibly, the bacteria enter the bloodstream, traveling to the rest of the body and provoking inflammation which results in the clogging of arteries, says Desvarieux in a news release. That needs further study, and the findings should be confirmed, say the researchers.

Desvarieux is on staff with Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health (search) and the University of Minnesota (search).

Good Gums, Healthier Heart

Of course, there are lots of ways to help your heart. Diet and exercise are important. So are handling stress appropriately, not smoking, and being screened for high blood pressure, diabetes, or other health problems. Medication, surgery, and/or lifestyle change might be needed.

Brushing and flossing your teeth don't replace those steps. But they're certainly two of the easiest ways to take better care of your heart.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Desvarieux, M., Circulation, Feb. 8, 2005; vol 111: pp 576-582. American Heart Association, "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics — 2005 Update." News release, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.