$1.2 Million NIH Grant to Fund Study of Link Between Gum Disease And Heart Disease

By Lois Baker

Release Date: October 2, 1997

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Strange as it may seem, taking care of your teeth and gums may also protect your heart.

Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, University at Buffalo dental researchers and preventive medicine specialists are beginning a five-year study of the relationship between periodontal (gum) disease and heart attacks.

The study and the size of the award reflect the growing interest in new evidence suggesting that infections in the oral cavity may trigger disease elsewhere in the body.

UB dental researchers are in the forefront of this field, with several preliminary studies showing that persons with gum disease are at high risk of developing heart disease.

Robert Genco, SUNY Distinguished Professor, chair of the UB Department of Oral Biology and principal investigator on the new study, said the oral bacteria that cause gum disease appear to be the culprit.

“Oral bacteria enter the bloodstream via small ulcers that develop in the gum tissue of persons with periodontal disease. These bacteria contribute to plaque formation and increase the chance of clots forming. Clots can also accumulate around damaged tissue, such as a lesion in the blood vessel or a replaced heart valve. These accumulations can narrow blood vessels. The bacteria also cause platelets to aggregate and can increase the chances of clots forming. Clots in a narrowed blood vessel can cause a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

“We’ve known for some time that oral bacteria can precipitate these kinds of reactions,” Genco said. “We just recently put these findings together as a possible explanation of how bacteria that cause gum disease can also increase the risk for heart disease.”

The new study will involve 1,000 people who have survived a first heart attack, and 2,250 people who have not had a heart attack. A complete health history will be compiled on all participants, and all will be given a dental exam with x-rays to determine the existence and extent of periodontal disease. Blood samples also will be taken and cholesterol profiles determined.

Researchers then will analyze rates of periodontal disease among heart-attack patients and those with no heart problems, eliminating the influence of other factors that contribute to heart disease, such as smoking or obesity, to determine to what extent gum disease is an independent risk factor for heart disease in both men and women.

The participants will be followed to determine the incidence of second heart attacks among the heart patients with and without periodontal disease. Researchers also will collect data on the number of first heart attacks in a control group and assess their relationship to periodontal disease.

If periodontal disease is found to be a true risk factor for heart attack, the next step will be to find out if treating the disease reduces that risk, Genco said. Because cardiovascular disease remains a leading cause of death in most developed countries, the answer to that question could have a major impact on public health.

“Although we know much about the risk factors for heart disease, there is still much unexplained risk to be assessed,” he noted.

Co-investigators on the study are Maurizio Trevisan, M.D., and Karen Falkner, Ph.D., of the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine; and Sara Grossi, D.D.S., Ernest Hausman, D.M.D., Juan Loza, D.D.S., Ph.D.; Joseph Zambon, D.D.S., Ph.D., all of the UB School of Dental Medicine.