We’ve all heard about how “keeping your mind active” (through crossword puzzles, learning new skills and the like) could be the key to avoiding Alzheimer’s disease. But what about brushing and flossing as deterrents? In recent years, cutting-edge research has been focused on a surprising potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, and that is poor oral health. While this connection is not yet fully understood, the data is hard to dispute.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a progressive neurological disease that affects brain function. An estimated 5.7 million Americans suffer from the disease, with this number projected to rise to 14 million by 2050.
Although the exact causes are still unknown, studies have shown that Alzheimer’s disease has a strong genetic component, with people who have a family history of the disease more likely to develop it later in life. Other probable risk factors include age, severe head injuries, and a history of cardiovascular disease. And recently, new research has drawn an increasingly persuasive connection between poor dental health and Alzheimer’s disease.
Why Gum Disease May Play a Part
Gum disease has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease on numerous occasions. According to a study published in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, a peer-reviewed medical journal, gum disease sufferers are 70% more likely to suffer from dementia. The study found that people who were exposed to chronic periodontitis (gum disease) for at least 10 years had a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies linking gum disease to Alzheimer’s disease include a study of dementia in identical twins, which found that exposure to inflammation early in life (from ailments such as periodontal disease) quadruples the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Another study conducted jointly by the University of Southampton and King’s College London showed that among people with moderate dementia, those with gum disease experienced a cognitive decline that was six times as rapid as those with healthy teeth.
Could Bacteria Be the Culprit?
The one thing scientists have yet to understand fully, is the exact link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Some researchers have speculated that the P. gingivalis bacteria found in the oral cavities of gum disease sufferers may enter the blood stream (either through invasive dental treatment or everyday activities like chewing or brushing teeth) and subsequently travel to the brain. Once these bacteria enter the brain, certain immune responses could be triggered, causing excess chemicals to be released. Those chemicals could lead to deteriorating memory or confusion, symptoms which are typical of Alzheimer’s disease.
Putting the Research to Use
Although the exact causation has yet to be pinned down, there’s enough evidence to suggest that poor dental health (particularly gum disease) could be not only a risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease, but most importantly, one that can be prevented. Which gives you yet another great reason to take care of your mouth and gums -- with good oral hygiene and regular visits to your dentist. Although, it wouldn’t hurt to keep doing those crossword puzzles as well.
Do you have a personal experience that you’d like to share? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts on the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and oral health.