Brushing and flossing not only battle gum disease (search) but also help dodge heart disease.

Taking care of your teeth and gums may reduce your chances of heart disease, the second leading cause of death for U.S. men and women following cancer.

Chronic inflammation from gum disease has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease. The latest findings on oral and heart health highlight a direct association between certain bacteria in the mouth and heart disease. Cleaning your teeth canhelp solve the problem.

Heart Disease, Gum Disease

Of course, dental health probably won’t single-handedly defeat heart disease. To best nurture your heart, you’ll still need to be active, eat healthfully, manage stress, and get whatever medical attention you need. You can’t eat lots of artery-clogging foods and then hope a quick swirl of the toothbrush will undo the damage.

But look at it this way: You probably already have a toothbrush and dental floss. They’re cheap, readily available, and you don’t have to break a sweat or get a prescription to use them.

The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that 2,600 people per day die of heart disease and 700,000 per year have a stroke in the U.S. Those problems aren’t just for the elderly; each year, heart disease kills 150,000 people younger than 65, says the AHA.

Meanwhile, poor oral hygiene can cause gingivitis (search), a gum infection that makes gums become inflamed, swollen, and bleed. Here’s how it starts: Plaque forms on teeth, and bacteria in plaque lead to chronic inflammation of the gum line. Tooth loss can result.

More Bacteria, More Artery-Clogging Plaque

Columbia University’s Moise Desvarieux, MD, PhD and colleagues presented their findings in Baltimore at the 83rd General Session of the International Association for Dental Research. WebMD first reported on their study last month, when their paper appeared in the journal Circulation.

Participants were 657 New Yorkers — about 69 years old, on average. They hadn’t had a stroke, heart attack, or chronic inflammatory condition.

Hundreds of bacterial species live in the human mouth. Participants with high levels of bacteria linked to gum disease had thicker carotid arteries as measured on ultrasound.

Thicker carotid arteries — the neck’s major arteries — are early signs of artery-clogging plaque. This often means that the same thing is going on in the arteries that supply the heart.

The results held after considering age, gender, race/ethnicity, diabetes, smoking, education level, and cholesterol.

It’s possible that in someone with gum disease the mouth’s pesky bacteria travel through the bloodstream and prompt inflammation that clogs arteries, Desvarieux said, in a news release last month.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: 83rd General Session of the International Association for Dental Research, Baltimore, March 9-12, 2005. WebMD Medical News: “Brush Your Teeth, Help Your Heart.” News release, International & American Association for Dental Research.