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Periodontal infections and cardiovascular

The heart of the matter
Ryan T. Demmer, PhD; Mose Desvarieux, MD, PhD

fter two decades of

research, it has been J

firmly established that

an association exists Background. Oral infection models have emerged

between periodontal

as useful tools to study the hypothesis that infection is

disease and cardiovascular disease

a cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factor. Periodontal


(CVD). The pertinent question, infections are a leading culprit, with studies reporting A ING ED 2
however, is about the nature and associations between periodontal disease and CVD. The ICLE
relevance of this association. results, however, have varied, and it often is unclear what conclusions can
Specifically, does the infectious be drawn from these data.
and inflammatory periodontal dis- Summary. An association exists between periodontal disease and CVD. It
ease process contribute causally to is unknown, however, whether this relationship is causal or coincidental.
heart attacks and strokes, or are Early studies predominantly used nonspecific clinical and radiographic defi-
these two conditions coincidentally nitions of periodontal disease as surrogates for infectious exposure. While
associated? most studies demonstrated positive associations between periodontal dis-
Although the evidence of a ease and CVD, not all studies were positive, and substantial variations in
potentially contributory role of results were evident. More recent studies have enhanced the specificity of
periodontal infections in the nat- infectious exposure definitions by measuring systemic antibodies to selected
ural history of CVD continues to periodontal pathogens or by directly measuring and quantifying oral micro-
mount, there are well-founded rea- biota from subgingival dental plaque. Results from these studies have shown
sons for skepticism. With this in positive associations between periodontal disease and CVD.
mind, we provide a state-of-the- Conclusions. Evidence continues to support an association among peri-
science article regarding the asso- odontal infections, atherosclerosis and vascular disease. Ongoing observa-
ciation between periodontal dis- tional and focused pilot intervention studies may inform the design of large-
ease and CVD. scale clinical intervention studies. Recommending periodontal treatment for
the prevention of atherosclerotic CVD is not warranted based on scientific
TRADITIONAL STUDIES OF evidence. Periodontal treatment must be recommended on the basis of the
CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE value of its benefits for the oral health of patients, recognizing that patients
are not healthy without good oral health. However, the emergence of peri-
In 1989, two Scandinavian reports odontal infections as a potential risk factor for CVD is leading to a conver-
revived a century-old hypothesis gence in oral and medical care that can only benefit the patients and public
relating chronic infections with health.
vascular disease that originally Key Words. Cardiovascular; infection; periodontitis; epidemiology.
was proposed by French and JADA 2006;137(10 supplement):14S-20S.
German scientists.1 Mattila and
colleagues2 found higher combined Dr. Demmer is a postdoctoral research scientist, Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public
levels of caries, periodontitis, peri- Health, Columbia University, New York City.
apical lesions and pericoronitis (all Dr. Desvarieux is a faculty member, Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health,
Columbia University, New York City; chair of excellence, Unit Mixte de Recherche, Site 707, Institut
serving as surrogate markers of National de la Sant et de la Recherche Mdicale, Universit Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris. Address reprint
oral infections) more frequently in requests to Dr. Desvarieux at Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia
patients with recent myocardial University, 722 W. 168th St., Suite 1704, New York, N.Y. 10032, e-mail

14S JADA, Vol. 137 October 2006

Copyright 2006 American Dental Association. All rights reserved.
infarction than in healthy control patients from smoking status, dietary patterns, race/ethnicity,
the same population. Syrjanen and colleagues3 education and socioeconomic status.7-11,13 These
observed relatively poor oral health among results have particular importance in the case of
patients who had experienced a recent stroke smoking, as some have postulated that the asso-
compared with control patients who had not ciation between periodontal disease and CVD is
experienced stroke. due to smoking-related bias.14 While smoking
These authors drew careful conclusions, pri- status was assessed in most studies, the level of
marily because of the substantial overlap noted adjustment varied, with some studies providing a
between risk factors for both periodontal disease more detailed smoking assessment. For example,
and CVDbeing older, being male, cigarette Morrison and colleagues10 observed that partici-
smoking, diabetes and low socioeconomic status. pants with periodontal disease had more risk of
If periodontal disease and CVD simply share developing fatal coronary heart disease and expe-
common risk factors, a correlation between the riencing stroke even after controlling for smoking
two would be expected even if a causal link did status by classifying current smokers according to
not exist. This epidemiologic phenomenon is the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Others
referred to as confounding.4 have controlled for smoking by restricting their
These studies enrolled patients when they analyses to never-smokers. Joshipura and col-
came to a hospital with a heart leagues13 reported an 80 percent
attack or stroke, which meant that elevation in stroke risk for people
measures of oral health were taken Most studies reported with zero to 24 teeth compared with
after the cardiovascular event had positive associations those who had 25 or more teeth
occurred, raising the possibility between periodontal among never-smokers. Desvarieux
that the cardiovascular event might disease and and colleagues15 reported similar
have influenced oral health nega- cardiovascular disease findings between tooth loss and
tively. The geographical homo- carotid atherosclerosis, unmodified
after accounting for
geneity and small number of par- by smoking status. Nevertheless,
ticipants enrolled in these studies the effects of multiple underlying the confounding by
precluded any reliable generaliza- risk factors such as smoking argument is the possi-
tions beyond the specific study age, sex, diabetes, bility of a healthy bias effect, in
population. cholesterol levels, which people who smoke are more
Subsequently, studies addressing blood pressure, likely to have unhealthy lifestyles,
many of these limitations have which can lead to both periodontal
obesity, smoking
made substantial contributions to disease and CVD.
our understanding of periodontal status, dietary Grau and colleagues16 provide
disease and CVD associations. 5,6 patterns, race/ important information concerning
These studies collectively included ethnicity, education the specificity of the hypothesis to
more than 100,000 adult men and and socioeconomic periodontal disease; they reported a
women from diverse populations, status. 400 percent increase in stroke risk
which has enhanced the consistency associated with periodontitis but
and generalizability of the proposed found no relationship between
association between periodontal disease and caries and stroke. The specificity of these findings
CVD. Because many of these studies were to periodontal disease argues against a healthy
prospective or retrospective,7-13 the assessment of lifestyle bias in which people with poor oral
periodontal disease often was done before the health practices, which can lead to both caries
occurrence of cardiovascular events, thus better and periodontal disease, also would be less likely
establishing the temporality of the association. to engage in behaviors related to cardiovascular
Several authors also rigorously tested whether health.
periodontal disease was associated with CVD Not all studies have found a positive relation-
independent of risk factors common to both con- ship between periodontal disease and CVD.
ditions. Specifically, most studies reported posi- Reports from the Health Professionals Follow-Up
tive associations after accounting for the effects Study17 and the Physicians Health Study18
of multiple risk factors such as age, sex, diabetes, observed no association between periodontal dis-
cholesterol levels, blood pressure, obesity, ease and either coronary heart disease or stroke

JADA, Vol. 137 October 2006 15S

Copyright 2006 American Dental Association. All rights reserved.
among more than 66,000 male health profes- lative exposure to periodontal infections is not
sionals. The large sample sizes of these two meaningfully different between edentulous
studies provide a good reason for caution with patients and those with periodontitis.15 Reports
regard to the overall hypothesis. However, a from the Oral Infections and Vascular Disease
major limitation of these studies stems from the Epidemiology Study (INVEST) and the Study of
self-report nature of periodontal disease assess- Health in Pomerania (SHIP) demonstrated that in
ment in which participants were asked via ques- both U.S. and German cohorts, participants with
tionnaire whether they had a history of peri- more tooth loss had more clinical periodontal dis-
odontal disease as opposed to receiving an ease, suggesting that periodontal disease might
in-person clinical examination.17,18 have been an important reason for tooth loss.15,22
Hujoel and colleagues19 found no association Furthermore, data from INVEST15,23 and SHIP22
between periodontal disease and coronary heart suggest that edentulous people remain at an ele-
disease in the First National Health and Nutri- vated or a potentially intermediate risk of devel-
tion Examination Survey (NHANES I) cohort. oping subclinical CVD. Consequently, it is pos-
Among younger participants (younger than 55 sible that the potential risk from periodontal
years), however, there was an approximately 50 to infections might not be reversible after a certain
80 percent increased risk of developing coronary threshold of subclinical CVD has developed.
heart disease associated with periodontitis.5,19 Reports from the United States11 and Ger-
Although subgroup results of this nature are sus- many16,23 have provided evidence that the associa-
ceptible to chance findings, these results are con- tion between periodontal disease and CVD might
sistent with the findings of Janket and colleagues5 be stronger among men than among women. The
and Mattila and colleagues,20 which suggest that possibility that novel risk factors might partly
periodontal disease might pose a stronger risk for explain some of the sex differential in CVD risk is
CVD among younger participants. intriguing.23 For example, in SHIP, Desvarieux
Interestingly, two of the studies reporting no and colleagues22 reported that men had more
association between periodontal disease and coro- severe periodontal disease than did women,
nary disease are at odds with stroke findings from raising the possibility that women did not reach a
the same population. Wu and colleagues11 found threshold of inflammation necessary for systemic
strong positive associations between periodontal effects.
disease and stroke in the same NHANES popula- In summary, research supports a moderate rel-
tion in which Hujoel and colleagues21 reported no ative association between CVD and periodontal
relationship between periodontal disease and coro- disease assessed clinically and radiographically.5,6
nary disease. Joshipura and colleagues reported This relationship appears to be more pronounced
no association between periodontal disease and in younger participants, possibly different in male
coronary disease,17 but they did find a positive and female subjects and consistently stronger for
association for stroke13 in the same cohort. These clinical stroke outcomes. Although the existence of
discrepancies are consistent with the literature, some null publications provides reason for cau-
which indicates that periodontal disease might be tion, these studies were based on self-reported
a stronger risk factor for cerebrovascular disease periodontal disease status, contradicted by other
than for coronary disease.5 analyses of the same dataset or potentially
In another report, Hujoel and colleagues21 explained by threshold effects. Nevertheless, sub-
reported that edentulous participants did not stantial variation in results among studies is
have a lower coronary heart disease risk com- apparent. A likely explanation for this variation is
pared with dentate participants with periodon- the nonspecificity of clinically or radiographically
titis. While these data could be interpreted as defined exposures used by traditional studies.
arguing against an association between vascular New research designed to measure oral infection
disease and periodontal disease, other explana- exposure more directly is needed.
tions should be considered. Indeed, while total
tooth extraction prevents exposure to periodontal NOVEL RESEARCH APPROACHES TO REFINE
infection, it does not remove the history of expo-
sure. For example, in populations in which tooth The study of periodontal disease and CVD asso-
loss primarily is due to periodontal disease, this ciations has its roots in the broader hypothesis
may lead to an apparent paradox in which cumu- concerning infections and CVD. Therefore, recent

16S JADA, Vol. 137 October 2006

Copyright 2006 American Dental Association. All rights reserved.
research has provided new insights by obtaining levels of the periodontal bacteria, after adjust-
more precise measures of exposure to periodontal ment for traditional risk factors. This relationship
microbes, incorporating outcome measures of sub- with atherosclerosis was specific for the four peri-
clinical CVD or both. odontal etiologic bacteria. No relationship was
Systemic antibody titers. Moving away from found between increased atherosclerosis and the
the earlier studies linking clinical and radiologic group of control bacteria, diminishing the likeli-
periodontal disease with vascular disease, hood of an unhealthy lifestyle bias. These results
Pussinen and colleagues24,25 reported that ele- constitute the most direct evidence to date of a
vated antibodies to selected periodontal possible contributory role of periodontal infections
pathogens were associated with an increased to atherosclerosis. However, while these findings
prevalence of coronary heart disease, increased are novel, they also are cross-sectional; thus, we
atherosclerosis in the carotid artery and more must await prospective results to determine
risk of developing coronary events during 10 whether oral microorganisms are associated with
years of follow-up. In a separate cohort, they atherosclerotic progression that will translate into
reported more risk of experiencing stroke asso- clinical events in this cohort.
ciated with elevated antibody titers.26 Both Recently, Spahr and colleagues33 provided evi-
studies were conducted in European populations. dence that these subclinical effects might be
In a U.S. cohort, Beck and colleagues27,28 translated into clinical coronary disease. They
reported that increased systemic directly assessed the periodontal
antibody levels to periodontal pathogen burden and found that an
microbes are related to an increased Carotid increased pathogen burden was
prevalence of coronary heart disease atherosclerosis as related positively to the presence of
and subclinical atherosclerosis. measured by clinical coronary heart disease.
Although these findings are not intima-media Subclinical intervention
prospective, they are consistent with studies. We are aware of three
thickening increased
previous findings that demonstrated intervention studies that have
an association between clinical peri- with higher levels assessed the impact of periodontal
odontal disease and atherosclerosis of the periodontal treatment on subclinical markers of
in the same population.29 These find- bacteria. CVD.34-36 Each reported that peri-
ings also are of interest because odontal treatment was associated
they show a relationship between with improved measures of sys-
antibody titers and coronary heart temic inflammation or subclinical
disease even among never-smokers, providing CVD. While these findings are novel and support
further evidence that the observed relationship is potential cardiovascular benefits from periodontal
not simply a result of smoking-induced bias. treatment, some important limitations should be
Direct measurement of oral microbiology. noted. First, these interventions were not ran-
An even more direct approach to assessing expo- domized, and they lacked an untreated control
sure to periodontal microbes is to measure bac- group of subjects with periodontal disease.
teria quantitatively in periodontal plaque sam- Second, oral infection was not measured directly
ples, a procedure that has not been undertaken at baseline and follow-up to address the contribu-
frequently in large samples because of the sub- tions of oral microbiology to these findings.
stantial undertaking and costs. INVEST Finally, these studies included small numbers of
researchers analyzed nearly 5,000 subgingival participants, and researchers were unable to
plaque samples in 657 dentate participants for determine if these subclinical findings translated
quantification of 11 known periodontal bacteria, into fewer clinical cardiovascular events.
including four (Actinobacillus actinomycetem-
comitans, Porphyromonas gingivalis, Tannerella MECHANISMS BY WHICH
forsythensis and Treponima denticola) defined a CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
priori as being related etiologically to periodontal
disease30,31 and seven other bacterial species A number of reviews have been published that
acting as controls. Desvarieux and colleagues32 outline potential biological mechanisms linking
reported that carotid atherosclerosis as measured infections and periodontal disease to CVD
by intima-media thickening increased with higher (Figure).37-40 We provide an overview of the

JADA, Vol. 137 October 2006 17S

Copyright 2006 American Dental Association. All rights reserved.
ated early atherosclerosis
Microbes among infected mice. Gia-
cona and colleagues50 found
Direct Invasion
Indirect that certain strains of
Circulation P. gingivalis are capable of
Vascular Injury infecting macrophages and

enhancing foam cell forma-
Abnormal Lipid Profile Inflammation
tion in the vascular wall,

LDL Cytokines
HDL Tissue Growth Factors adding further credence to

Triglycerides LDL and Oxidized LDL in Macrophages

P. gingivalis ability to ini-
Atherosclerosis tiate or exacerbate the ath-
Procoagulant Environment erosclerotic process.
Activation of Coagulation Cascade
Finally, in vitro studies

Platelet Aggregation

Factor X Activation demonstrated the ability of
Thrombosis Streptococcus sanguis and
P. gingivalis to induce
platelet aggregation and
Vulnerable Plaque hypercoagulability,
increasing the likelihood of
thrombus formation, which
can lead to ischemic cardio-
vascular events.51-54
Indirect pathways.
Figure. Example of a potential mechanism of infectious agents in atherosclerosis. LDL: Low-density
lipoprotein. HDL: High-density lipoprotein. Source: Fong.37 Atherosclerosis has a
strong inflammatory com-
leading biological hypotheses. ponent,55,56 and epidemiologic evidence suggests
Direct pathways. Oral microbes and their that increased levels of systemic inflammation are
byproducts can gain systemic access via the circu- predictive of cardiovascular events.57,58
latory system. Geerts and colleagues showed People with periodontal disease have elevated
that gentle mastication can induce endotoxemia, levels of systemic inflammatory markers, such as
and this risk was elevated according to an C-reactive protein,59-63 and treatment for peri-
increased severity of periodontal disease. Kinane odontal disease has been reported to decrease sys-
and colleagues,42 Rajasuo and colleagues,43 temic inflammation levels.64 There are many
44 45
Roberts and Forner and colleagues have shown potential triggers for this enhanced systemic
that dental procedures and toothbrushing can inflammatory response, including transient bac-
induce bacteremias. Recent research indicates teremias and the local release of bacterial by-
that the magnitude of bacteremia after scaling products such as lipopolysaccharide.34,65
was amplified among patients with periodontitis Another plausible mechanism connecting oral
as opposed to patients with gingivitis or healthy infection and CVD is molecular mimicry, in which
control patients.45 Studies of carotid endarterec- antibodies targeted toward bacterial (including
tomy samples have found common periodontal periodontal) species inadvertently cross-react with
pathogens from arterial plaques.46,47 In gaining host cells. For example, heat shock protein 60 has
systemic access, oral microbes have the potential been studied for its potential role in mediating
to directly influence subclinical mediators of infection-induced atherosclerosis, as human and
cardiovascular events such as hypercoagulability, bacterial heat shock proteins 60 are conserved
atherosclerotic development or both. highly.66 These instances of mistaken identity
A mice study demonstrated that intravenous could lead to vascular inflammation and
inoculation with P. gingivalis accelerates athero- atherosclerosis.
sclerotic development.48 Lalla and colleagues49
induced periodontal infection via oral inoculation CONCLUSION
with P. gingivalis and were later able to recover At a minimum, periodontal infections are epi-
P. gingivalis DNA from the aortic tissue of demiologically associated with CVD; that is, peri-
infected mice only and observe signs of acceler- odontal infections seem to be found more fre-

18S JADA, Vol. 137 October 2006

Copyright 2006 American Dental Association. All rights reserved.
quently in patients with CVD. However, the crit- of periodontal infections as a possible risk factor
ical question of whether periodontal infections are for CVD is leading to a convergence in oral and
a risk factor for or contribute causally to CVD and medical care. As dental, public health and medical
cerebrovascular disease remains unanswered. researchers and practitioners reach across disci-
The possibility that periodontal disease and CVD plines, a holistic approach to care can only benefit
share common risk factors or are manifestations the patients and public health as a whole.
of a similar underlying pathology remains, as sev-
eral analyses were conducted post hoc and statis- This work was supported by National Institute of Dental and Cranio-
facial Research grant R01 DE 13094 and Projet ANR R05115DD from
tical adjustment for confounders can be imperfect. the French Agency for Research.
However, the mounting evidence points to an
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