Maintaining good oral hygiene has long been associated with preventing various health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more. However, recent research suggests that the health of your teeth and gums can have a significant impact on your cognitive well-being, potentially influencing your risk of developing dementia.
A New Perspective on Oral Health
Emerging evidence from studies around the world is shedding light on the link between oral health and brain function. Anita Visser, a professor in geriatric dentistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, emphasizes the importance of oral health, stating, “People should really be aware that oral health is really important.”
Periodontal disease, a condition characterized by chronic inflammation and damage to the gums and bone supporting the teeth, affects approximately 19 percent of individuals aged 15 and older, or over 1 billion people worldwide, according to a 2022 World Health Organization report. While more research is needed, recent observational studies indicate that oral health may be a modifiable risk factor for Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
The Connection Between Oral Health and Dementia
Several studies have explored the connection between gum disease, tooth loss, and dementia. One study focused on aging nuns found that severe tooth loss was associated with a 6.4 times higher risk of dementia compared to those who experienced fewer tooth losses. Other longitudinal studies have also linked tooth loss to cognitive decline.
In 2017, a study involving nearly 28,000 Taiwanese patients reported that chronic periodontal disease for a decade or more corresponded to a 1.7 times higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2022 meta-analysis of 47 longitudinal studies further highlighted the association between tooth loss, poor oral health, cognitive decline, and dementia.
However, it’s essential to note that while this research suggests a connection between oral health and dementia, it cannot definitively establish causation. Some factors, such as dental problems, may be a symptom rather than a cause of cognitive decline.
Mouth Bacteria and Brain Infection
Research has also delved into the role of bacteria in oral health and its potential impact on brain health. A 2019 study reported that DNA from P. gingivalis bacteria, a key pathogen in gum disease, was found in brain autopsies of Alzheimer’s patients. Additionally, bacterial DNA was detected in the cerebrospinal fluid of individuals diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease.
These findings raised questions about how periodontal bacteria could access the central nervous system. While the exact mechanisms remain unknown, bacteria could potentially reach the brain through blood circulation or peripheral nerves.
Inflammation’s Role in Brain Health
Inflammation in the mouth can also affect brain health. Dental plaque buildup, caused by acid-producing bacteria, triggers inflammation of the gums as the immune system tries to combat the infection. If left unaddressed, this inflammation can progress to periodontitis, leading to the enlargement of the gap between teeth and gums, allowing more bacteria to enter.
Chronic inflammation in the mouth can spill over into the rest of the body, increasing the levels of pro-inflammatory molecules in the blood. This systemic inflammation can contribute to chronic neuroinflammation in the brain, which plays a role in neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Importance of Oral Hygiene
While researchers continue to explore the complex relationship between oral health and cognitive function, it’s essential to prioritize oral hygiene. Maintaining good oral health through regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups is one of the simplest and most important ways to take care of yourself.
Visser is currently conducting a longitudinal study that collects oral health data from hundreds of patients with cognitive impairment. This research aims to provide more insights into how oral health may affect cognitive risk.
In the face of numerous confounding factors like lifestyle, smoking, educational level, and diet, raising awareness about the potential link between tooth loss, periodontitis, and Alzheimer’s disease can encourage individuals to pay more attention to their oral health. So, for better overall health and possibly a healthier brain, don’t forget to keep brushing and taking care of your teeth and gums.