Nearly 16 million Americans suffer from the respiratory disorder Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), making it the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. But the results of a new study, described in this month's Journal of Periodontology, suggest that simply taking better care of their gums might help COPD patients to stave off progression of the disease.

Oral biologists from the University of Buffalo studied the gums and lungs of 13,792 patients. Those patients with periodontal disease, they found, had a one-and-a-half times greater risk of COPD than did those with sound gums. Moreover, lung problems worsened with declining oral health. "We know that the onset and progression of COPD is dependent on smoking, and that repeated bacterial infections can worsen the lung disease," says team member Frank A. Scannapieco. "It is possible that periodontal bacteria could travel to the lungs through saliva or normal breathing and in some way promote lung infection. Another possibility is that the inflammation caused by periodontal disease may contribute to inflammation of the lining of the lung airway, which limits the amount of air that passes to and from the lungs."

Scannapieco notes that although failure to brush ones teeth won't lead to lung disease, "if you already have lung disease, taking care of your teeth and gums is especially important."