It turns out your mouth may play a bigger role in heart health than anyone could have imagined.

We already know that what you eat can have a huge impact on your heart. The low-fat, high-carb "Torture Chamber Diet," for example, has led directly to the obesity and diabetes epidemics now facing our nation. And that one-two punch has left our tickers battered and beaten, making heart disease our number one killer.

But now we have more evidence that it's not just the food you put in your mouth that matters when it comes to your heart. How you treat your teeth and gums, and how clean you keep your kisser, appears to have a direct impact on your overall cardiac health.

To put it simply, dirty mouths – and I'm not talking about salty language – lead to more heart attacks, according to a study carried out at the University of Buffalo in New York and presented at a meeting of the International Association of Dental Research.

The researchers looked at 386 men and women who had suffered heart attacks, and 840 people who had no history of heart trouble. They found that the heart attack victims had higher levels of bacteria in their mouths.

This isn't the first study to find a connection between the condition of our teeth and gums and the overall health of our hearts. No one's quite been able to put a finger on exactly why it matters – it may be that the bacteria in the mouth causes inflammation that can spread and ultimately lead to blood clots.

But we do know this: It matters, and possibly quite a bit.

The researchers in Buffalo were trying to find out if a specific kind of bacteria in the mouth might be a better indicator of heart disease, and they did find two that seemed more prevalent in heart attack victims. But in general, it was the sheer number of bacteria – and not their type – that mattered most of all.

More bacteria meant more heart attacks. Period.

That means it's more important than ever not only to brush your teeth after meals, but to visit the dentist twice a year for a more thorough cleaning.

Now, many of us look forward to a trip to the dentist's office about as much as, well, a trip to the dentist's office.

I understand how you feel. I've taken my lumps in that chair, too. You can brush twice a day and avoid sugary foods and still find yourself squirming when that light comes on and the hygienist leans in.

It's tempting to skip it, and unfortunately that's what many people do – especially as we get older. And that's a huge mistake. When you consider how dramatically the risks to your heart increase as you age, you need to start looking at those dental trips as more than just oral hygiene pit stops.

Because now we can say almost for certain that your dentist isn't just saving your teeth.  He may be saving your life.