Thousands of elderly people are being reminded they should look after their oral health after scientists linked the bacteria in plaque to Endocarditis, inflammation of the inner lining of the heart.
The study found if bacteria in dental plaque entered the bloodstream, it could cause blood clots around the heart.
Researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the University of Bristol presented their work at the Society for General Microbiology's Spring Conference in Dublin. They found that Streptococcus gordonii, a normal inhabitant of the mouth, contributed to plaque that forms on the surface of teeth. If these bacteria enter into the blood stream through bleeding gums they can appear to impersonate human proteins and potentially cause harm.
Dr Helen Petersen, involved in the research, said: "We are trying to determine how widespread this phenomenon is by studying other related bacteria. However, this raises awareness of the role of normally quite harmless bacteria in the mouth can potentially trigger blood clots. As well as protecting against tooth decay and gum disease, good oral hygiene may be even more important to keep a healthy body. It is recommended that people brush their teeth twice a day and floss and see their dentist regularly for check-ups."
Endocarditis is a serious condition, where the sufferer develops inflammation of the inner lining of the heart. It is thought it affects 40,000 people in the UK and is more common in those over 50, although cases of children developing the disease have been recorded.
Although further research is required to determine the exact relationship between oral health and Endocarditis, it is not the first time two such diseases have been linked.
Poor oral health has been associated with heart disease for a number of years. Research suggests people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease than people without gum disease. When people have gum disease, bacteria from the mouth can get into their bloodstream. The bacteria produce protein. This can then affect the heart by causing the platelets in the blood to stick together in the blood vessels of the heart. This can make clots more likely to form. Blood clots can reduce normal blood flow, so that the heart does not get all the nutrients and oxygen it needs.
If the blood flow is badly affected this could lead to a heart attack.
The findings of the study present further evidence that there's a significant health risk resulting from poor oral health, according to Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter.
Dr Carter said: "What people must remember, particularly those highlighted as vulnerable, is that prevention can be very basic.
"Systemic links between gum disease and overall health have been well documented, and it reinforces the notion that keeping up good oral health can really help stave off illness.
"Endocarditis is an extremely serious condition. If there's any possibility that poor oral health contributes to it, there should be no greater reason to establish a good oral health routine.
"To help keep plaque at bay, the Foundation recommends three golden rules. Simply brushing your teeth for two minutes twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste, cleaning in between teeth daily with interdental brushes or floss, cutting down on how often you have sugary foods and drinks and visiting the dentist regularly, as often as they recommend will be a great starting point.
"If you have swollen gums that bleed regularly when brushing, bad breath, loose teeth or regular mouth infections appear, it is likely you have gum disease."