With nearly 800,000 people suffering from stroke in the United States each year, finding out what causes this debilitating type of brain attack is more vital than ever. The fifth-leading cause of death in America, stroke is the No. 1 cause of “serious, long-term disability in the United States,” according to strokecenter.org.

A stroke is a disease that affects the arteries of and leading to the brain. Strokes happen when an oxygen-carrying blood vessel either becomes blocked by a blood clot or ruptures. This causes the cells of the brain to become starved for oxygen, and the brain begins to die. Though it is not known exactly what causes a stroke to occur, a new research study has uncovered a new link between stroke and your oral health that may shed some light on this mysterious condition.

In an ongoing study examining the effects of bacterial infection on the development of cardiovascular diseases by researchers at Tampere University in Tampere, Finland, researchers analyzed something called “thrombus aspirates,” which they removed from 75 patients who had suffered strokes. When the DNA in these aspirates were duplicated and studied, researchers found that nearly 80 percent of the aspirates held DNA from oral bacteria.

So, what exactly does this mean? We asked Fort Collins, Colorado, dentist Dr. Allison Lesko to help make sense of the findings.

“A thrombus is a blood clot, so in the case of these patients, the thrombus aspirates that were removed was the clot that caused the stroke,” she says. “So when they removed this clot and dissected it, they found DNA from oral bacteria inside it. This means the oral bacteria that causes cavities and inflammation in the mouth can travel to the brain and play some role in the formation of blood clots that may cause stroke.”

And that’s more bad news for patients with periodontal disease or who have an overabundance of oral bacteria.

“We already know that the bacteria that causes periodontal disease can contribute to a variety of other serious and deadly conditions, ranging from oral health issues to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure,” says Lesko. “It has even been recently linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s certainly motivation to take better care of your oral health.”

Lesko says that while it is not yet known what the exact link between oral bacteria and stroke is, in order to reduce any potential risk between the two, take excellent care of your oral hygiene and you may inadvertently lower your risk.

“That means brushing twice a day, for two minutes minimum, and flossing at least once a day,” Lesko says. “It’s fast, it’s easy and it will make you look and feel great.”