Keeping your gums in shape could lower your risk of heart disease, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Columbia University have demonstrated that as gum health increases, the narrowing of arteries through plaque build up, also known as atherosclerosis, decreases to a significant degree.

"These results are important because atherosclerosis progressed in parallel with both clinical periodontal disease and the bacterial profiles in the gums," said Dr. Moïse Desvarieux, lead author of the paper and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. "This is the most direct evidence yet that modifying the periodontal bacterial profile could play a role in preventing or slowing both diseases."

The study included 420 adults who were examined for periodontal infection. More than 5,000 plaque samples were taken from several teeth and beneath the gum and analyzed for 11 bacterial strains tied to periodontal disease, as well as seven control bacteria. Fluid from around the gums was also examined for signs of the inflammation marker Interleukin-1β. Finally, atherosclerosisin carotid arteries was measured using high-resolution ultrasound.

Over a median follow-up of three years, the researchers discovered that improvement in gum health and a reduction in the proportion of bacteria linked to periodontal disease directly correlated to slower progression in the thickness of the innermost two layers of the arterial wall, and vice versa.

"Our results address a gap identified in the [American Heart Association] statement on periodontal disease and atherosclerosis, by providing longitudinal data supporting this association," said study co-author Dr. Ralph Sacco, professor and chairman of Neurology at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine and former president of the American Heart Association.

Desvarieux concluded: "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."