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Do healthy gums lead to a healthy heart?

Over 1 million Americans die from heart attack or stroke every year.

There may be a link between gum disease and cardiovascular problems and stroke, and dental scientists are working overtime to find out how oral disease affects life-threatening conditions.

Now comes news from the University of Florida that researchers have found oral bacteria in artery-clogging plaque.

"Our finding is important because it has proved there are live periodontal bacteria in human atherosclerotic tissue," said Dr. Ann Progulske-Fox, UF College of Dentistry professor of oral biology. "Now we can understand how these bacteria contribute to the disease process."

In order for the bacteria to reach the circulatory system, they must cross the barrier between tissues in the mouth and the bloodstream. Patients with periodontal disease have gums that are inflamed and bleed easily. These patients introduce oral bacteria in the bloodstream when the toothbrush bristles tear tiny blood vessels in the gum tissue.

Utilizing a diseased section of a carotid artery to grow bacteria from arterial plaque, Dr. Progulske-Fox found the cells were infected with two aggressive oral bacteria-proving that live bacteria were present in the atherosclerotic plaque.

Some strains of the bacteria may be more successful in crossing the barriers separating oral tissues from the bloodstream, suspects Dr. Progulske-Fox. These are the ones that researchers would seek out in the fight against periodontal and cardiovascular disease.

"More study samples will show us which strains are implicated in the disease process, so we can design simple diagnostic technology that could be used in a dental office to identify specific bacteria the patient is carrying and whether that bacteria is known to cause atherosclerotic disease," she said.

Diagnostic tests could lead to future treatments like a vaccine that would prevent oral bacteria from gaining a stronghold in the mouth, or antibiotic or antimicrobial treatments that could kill the bacteria after they have entered the circulatory system.

For now, patients are advised to practice good oral hygiene. "It is important for these patients to have very good dental hygiene," said Dr. Progulske-Fox. "Losing a tooth may not be a big deal to some people, but it can become a life-threatening condition.

Please contact the ADA if you have questions about this article.

©2010 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

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