Preventing Heart disease and Stroke, Addressing the Nation’s Leading Killer
—Center for Disease Control. Health Center Dental News 2000

Gum disease, apart from being unsightly and uncomfortable, might significantly increase a person’s risk of stroke, according to results of a national study.

Dr. Tiejian Wu from the State University of New York at Buffalo and colleagues examined the link between gum disease, or periodontitis, and risk of having a stroke in nearly 10,000 adults who participated in a large health survey between the early 1970s and 1992. “We found that periodontitis was associated with an increased risk of stroke in a 21-year follow-up of US adults,” Wu told Reuters Health in an interview.

Gum disease begins insidiously with gingivitis, characterized by swollen gums that easily bleed. Without treatment, the condition progresses to periodontitis, the inflammation of the tissues supporting the teeth. Eventually, bone and tissue loss can result.

What sets the process in motion is the presence of bacteria. It is these bacteria, according to Wu, that get into the bloodstream and can stimulate clotting. And other effects associated with the bacteria can damage the lining of blood vessels. All these events can increase the risk of stroke.

Stroke is characterized by either bleeding in the brain because of a ruptured vessel or impaired blood flow to a part of the brain when a vessel is blocked by a clot.

The investigators were not able to define exactly which bacteria are to blame for the destructive effects of the condition, because this information could not be determined based on the data collected as part of the original survey. But they expect that future research will serve “to confirm the possible role of specific harmful microorganisms.” So while Wu cautioned that “the cause-effect relation is not conclusive at this point,” he said that these findings indicate “people may need to pay more attention to their oral health, as it may influence their systemic health.”