The statin medications you
take for your heart may have an unexpected side benefit: they help reduce
inflammation of the gums, according to new research.
Using advanced imaging
techniques, researchers were able to see that when people with gum disease took
higher doses of the commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, their gum
During the 12-week study,
the researchers also looked for evidence of inflammation or hardening of the
blood vessels (atherosclerotic disease) in the study volunteers, and they found
that reduced gum inflammation was correlated with improved blood vessel health.
"There is a building,
growing body of literature that draws a line between gum disease and
atherosclerotic disease. In our study, benefits in the gums correlated with
benefits in the arteries," said the study's senior author, Dr Ahmed
Tawakol, co-director of the Cardiac Imaging Trials Program at Massachusetts
General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. "People with [gum
disease] and atherosclerotic disease should likely be that much more vigilant
in treating their gum disease."
The study was published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Funding was provided by drug manufacturer Merck and Co., which does not produce
the statin used in this study.
Currently, statins are
prescribed to lower high levels of "bad" cholesterol, also known as
LDL cholesterol. When there's too much LDL cholesterol, it can start to build
up on blood vessel walls, leading to hardening of the arteries.
30 million Americans take statins
In the United States, more
than 30 million people take statins, and as many as 200 million people
worldwide take these cholesterol-lowering medications, according to a journal
editorial accompanying the study. Periodontal disease (or gum disease) affects
nearly half of US adults.
According to editorial
author Dr Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Cicerone
Centre for the Prevention of Heart Disease in Baltimore, a "consistent
stream of data" shows that statins have benefits beyond their
"There are three big
categories of how statins likely exert their effects: lowering LDL, reducing
inflammation, and by modulating plaque," said Blaha.
The current study lends
support to the idea that statins can reduce inflammation. It included 83 adults
who had risk factors for, or already had, atherosclerosis. They were randomly
assigned to take either 10 or 80 milligrams of a statin called atorvastatin
(brand name Lipitor) for three months.
Everyone underwent imaging
at the start of the study, again after four weeks and then at 12 weeks.
Significant reduction in gum inflammation
At the end of the study,
the investigators had complete data on 59 people. They found a significant
reduction in gum inflammation for the people taking 80 mg of atorvastatin
compared to those on the 10-mg dose. Changes began as early as four weeks after
people started taking the higher-dose drug.
There was a more
significant reduction in gum inflammation for people who had more serious gum
disease at the start of the study and took a higher dose of the statin. The
researchers also found that a reduction in gum inflammation correlated with
reduced blood vessel inflammation.
"It was really those
on the higher-dose statins that had the benefit," noted Tawakol. But,
"I would not recommend the use of statins outside the current
guidelines," he added. "We see this trial more as a
proof-of-principle trial. Our findings need to be confirmed in a larger
Still, he said, there's
little harm in telling people to take care of gum disease. "Patients with
known heart disease and known gum disease should have their gum disease
evaluated and treated," Tawakol said.
Blaha agreed that it's too
soon to change practice guidelines either for treating heart disease risk
factors or for gum disease.
Still, "this study and
others like it have tremendous implications," Blaha said. "We've
never had a drug that worked this well and for so many different groups of
Learn more about statins
from the U.S.
National Library of Medicine.