Minty fresh breath isn't the only reason to keep your mouth clean--good oral hygiene will also help protect your heart.

While that connection has been confirmed by repeated studies over the years, the reason for it hasn't always been well understood... until now.

Researchers say they've found the missing link between dental health and cardiovascular risk--and it turns out the same bacteria responsible for toothaches and gum disease are making their way right into your cardiovascular system.

The problem is the common Streptococcus, the same bacteria that put the "strep" into "strep throat."

These bacteria are present in the mouth more often that you might want to believe... in fact, they're almost certainly in your mouth right now.

Don't panic--because in most cases, they're harmless.

The problems begin when you let your dental health go to pieces. Bleeding gums offer these bacteria easy access to your insides. In fact, you can think of bloody gums as the entrance ramp to the superhighway of your circulatory system.

And these bacteria are only too happy to hop on and make a beeline for the express lanes.

Anyone who's seen what too many big trucks do to a highway can appreciate what then starts happening in your arteries: traffic jams. The researchers say the bacteria use a protein on their surface to force the platelets in your blood to clump, creating the clots that can lead to strokes and heart attacks.

And just to show you how clever these guys are--and why they're so hard to beat--the researchers also found that by causing the clots, the bacteria also create a suit of armor out of platelets, covering them completely and protecting them from antibiotics.

If that doesn't have you reaching for the floss and mouthwash, I don't know what will.

Streptococcus isn't the only oral bacteria that can put a stop to your heart. One study last year found that people with Tannerella forsythensis had a 53 percent increased risk of heart attack, while the presence of Prevotella intermedia led to a 35 percent increase in that risk.

That same study also found that people with the most bacteria in the mouth--any type of bacteria at all--have the highest risk, so the message is pretty clear: Keep your mouth clean and you'll have a healthier heart.