Is There a Link Between Dental Health and Dementia?

Can Healthy Gums Keep Your Brain Sharp?

One thing we all dread about growing older is losing our memory.  ‘Dementia’ is the overall term for various types of cognitive impairment related to aging, including Alzheimer’s disease.  While there’s no known cure at this time, research is underway in many areas of medicine, looking for connections, causes and possible prevention measures.

One intriguing factor that seems to be coming up more and more is the link between oral health and dementia.  Studies have shown a link between periodontal, or gum disease and dementia.  Could it be that prevention of this tragic disability is as close at hand as your toothbrush?

In a study published in 2009 by Columbia University researchers in New York City, over 2,300 men and women were tested for the bacteria that cause periodontitis.  This infection can cause gums to become so irritated that they no longer hold the teeth firmly in place, causing wobbly teeth and tooth loss.  The study subjects, who were all over age 60, were also given a series of tests challenging their memory functions.

Nearly 20 percent of the subjects had difficulty completing the tests, and those with the poorest dental health had the lowest scores for memory and mental function.  For example, one part of the test asked subjects to recall a simple sequence of three words.  The higher their level of disease-producing oral bacteria, the poorer the subjects performed on this test.  Those with the highest levels of gum disease were three times as likely to have trouble with word recall as those with the healthiest mouths and gums.  This group was also twice as likely to fail another test based on simple mental arithmetic calculations.

A Triangle of Diseases

These and other studies are continuing to provide evidence of links between periodontal disease, dementia and cardiovascular disease – which is a leading cause of death among adults worldwide.  The common denominator among all of these diseases is inflammation.  This is a normal bodily response to injury or some other kind of assault.  For example, if you skin or scrape your knee, you’ll immediately notice the development of redness, heat or pain and swelling.  Yes, it hurts!  But in this case, it’s just what nature intended: the swelling ‘seals off’ the injured tissues to block the spread of bacteria to other parts of the body. The redness and heat are signs that an increased blood flow is coursing through the injured area, bringing an extra supply of white blood cells and other natural agents that fight off infection and promote healing.  In this respect, inflammation is a good thing. With the skinned knee, the inflammation is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, and is a vital part of our evolution and survival. However, it’s when inflammation becomes chronic or ‘hidden’ deep within the body that things go wrong.

Thus,  presence of inflammation in the gums – periodontal disease – may be an early indication of later troubles with cognitive function.  Studies have shown that people with early periodontal disease, before age 35, have more than four times the chance of developing dementia in later years.  Scientists theorize that this inflammation, once started in the gums, can ‘migrate’ to other parts of the body where it then causes more trouble.  If the inflammation spreads to the brain, it shows up as dementia.  To the heart, it becomes cardiovascular (heart) disease.

A further intriguing link among these ‘gang of three’ diseases is that studies are showing they all respond positively to nutritional enhancement.  Both Folic acid, a type of B vitamin, and Vitamin D have been shown to lessen the occurrence or severity of dementia and periodontal and cardiovascular disease.  This is not to say you should go out and empty the pharmacies of their vitamin supply – but if you are concerned about your long-term heart and brain health, it seems like it might be good idea to brush your teeth and take your vitamins!

When Dementia Interferes With Dental Care

People who suffer from dementia face yet another obstacle to their oral health.  The nature of the dementia simply gets in the way of their ability and motivation to continue with good oral health care.  As dental and oral health decline, the feedback loop gets activated: sufferers can’t chew or eat as well as they used to, so their nutritional intake declines. Some medications commonly prescribed to older people cause ‘dry mouth’ which can complicate the use and fitting of dentures. Lack of proper dental hygiene can lead to a resurgence of cavities, tooth loss and periodontal disease. The inflammation from gum disease could then go on become cardiovascular disease.  Thus, it’s important to maintain good dental health even in one’s golden years.

If you have a loved one suffering from dementia, or are a caregiver, you may be called upon to assist them with their oral care.  We at Bite Dental Studio will be glad to answer your questions or provide you with instructions on how to help care for your loved one’s teeth and gums at home.  We also know that dental visits, while important, can be frightening to those who suffer from cognitive impairments and disabilities.  We welcome caregivers to be present and assist with the comforting of their loved ones during dental exams and procedures.

No matter whether you’re young, old, in between – or ‘young at heart’  – the time to start taking care of your teeth, gums, heart and brain is now.  At Bite Dental Studio, as your partner in lifelong oral health care, we always take the time to do a thorough check for any signs of periodontal disease at each exam visit.  We want you to be your ‘best and brightest’ for a lifetime!

Related Post:
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The mouth is a mirror of your overall nutritional health
Dibetes education March 2014

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