Approximately two-thirds of older Americans suffer from moderate to severe gum disease and tooth loss. Recent studies suggest poor dental health may increase your risk of developing dementia later in life. Millions of Americans live with the devastating effects of dementia which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Gum Disease Impacts Your Overall Health
Your periodontal health can have a significant effect on your overall health. Gum disease has been connected to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Gum disease is especially problematic for individuals with diabetes. The condition slows healing and increases the risk for infection. In turn, the infection can have an adverse effect on blood sugar levels.
Common symptoms of gum disease include:
• Red or receding gums
• Bleeding gums
• Bad breath
• Mouth sores
• Loose teeth
Your risk of developing gum disease increases if you have the following risk factors:
• You smoke.
• There is a history of periodontal disease in your family.
• You are diabetic.
• You frequently grind or clench your teeth.
• You are under a lot of stress.
The Link Between Dental Health and Dementia
University of California researchers conducted a study of more than 5,000 people over 18 years. None of the study participants showed any signs of dementia at the start of the study in 1992. They tracked oral health habits and the condition of the participant’s teeth. By the end of the study in 2010, approximately 20 percent of the individuals studied had been diagnosed with dementia. The study showed that individuals who reported brushing their teeth less than once a day had a 65 percent greater incidence of dementia than individuals who brushed more frequently.
A Japanese study conducted by Dr. Nozomi Okamoto showed similar results. The study followed over 4000 older adults. The study participants who rarely went to the dentist and had fewer teeth had a higher rate of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study, performed by the University of Kentucky, looked at tooth loss and dementia among 144 participants. The results showed an increased risk of dementia among participants with less than 10 teeth compared to those with 10 or more teeth. The study also suggested several possibilities for the connection between poor dental health and dementia, including nutritional deficiencies and chronic diseases or infections that may impact tooth loss and brain health.
While the above studies suggest a link between periodontal disease and dementia, some scientists say more studies are needed. A study by the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry showed similar rates of tooth loss among patients with and without dementia. Researchers say it is unclear whether periodontal disease causes dementia or if the tooth loss is a consequence of late-stage dementia.
Bacteria Associated with Gum Disease May Be the Culprit
British scientists believe they have isolated a specific bacteria that may be the link between tooth loss and dementia. Researchers found a bacteria called P. gingivalis in the brain tissues of 40 percent of study participants with dementia. The theory is that the bacteria enters the brain during activities such as eating and brushing. The bacteria triggers the body’s natural immune and inflammatory response that can result in cell death and possible memory loss.
Some experts advise that it is important to continue research into the potential link between dental infection and memory loss. These experts point out that it is not clear whether P. gingivalis causes dementia or if behaviors associated with late-stage dementia contribute to the development of gum disease. Other researchers say that other factors, such as malnutrition and head injuries, may contribute to dementia and were not considered in the earlier studies.
Should You Be Concerned?
Regardless of the risk for developing dementia, good oral health practices are an important part of a healthy lifestyle. You should make it a habit to see your dentist regularly. Your dentist can give your teeth a thorough cleaning to remove the plaque that can harbor dangerous bacteria. He or she can also perform x-rays to identify any other underlying conditions that could affect the health of your teeth. Of course, you should always make sure you brush and floss at least twice daily.