Children who develop cavities and gum disease may be more likely to develop risk factors for heart attacks and strokes decades later than kids who have good oral health, a recent study suggests.

Researchers did dental exams for 755 children in 1980, when they were eight years old on average, then followed them through 2007 to see how many of them developed risk factors for heart attacks and strokes like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, high blood sugar, and hardening of the arteries.

Overall, just 33 kids, or 4.5 percent, had no signs of bleeding, cavities, fillings, or pockets around teeth that can signal gum disease. Almost six percent of the kids had one of these four signs of oral infections, while 17 percent had two signs, 38 percent had three signs, and 34 percent had all four signs.

Kids who had even one sign of oral infection were 87 percent more likely to develop what’s known as subclinical atherosclerosis: structural changes and thickening in the artery walls that isn’t yet serious enough to cause complications.

Children with all four signs of poor oral health were 95 percent more likely to develop this type of artery damage.

Oral infections are among the most common causes of inflammation-induced diseases worldwide, and periodontal disease in adults have long been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, researchers note in JAMA Network Open.

Most people get cavities and gum disease for the first time in childhood, and these conditions can develop into more serious infections and tooth loss if they aren’t properly treated, the study authors note. Treating these oral health problems in childhood can also reduce inflammation and other risk factors for hardening of the arteries.

“This emphasizes how important good oral hygiene and frequent check-ups with a dentist starting early in life are for general health,” said lead study author Pirkko Pussinen of the University of Helsinki in Finland.

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