Gum disease can increase chances of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, says study
People with the most severe gum disease at the start of the study had about twice the risk after 20 years, say researchers
A new study reinforces the need to maintain good oral hygiene to ward off memory loss-related conditions. Researchers found that people struggling with a gum disease that leads to loss of teeth have higher odds of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
"We looked at people's dental health over a 20-year period and found that people with the most severe gum disease at the start of our study had about twice the risk for mild cognitive impairment or dementia by the end," says study author Dr Ryan T Demmer from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. However, he adds that people with lower dental damage are unlikely to face a higher risk than those with healthy gums.
Dr Demmer and his team recruited 8,275 people with an average age of 63 for the study. None of them had dementia at that time. They examined the oral health and checked for gum disease before following them for about two decades.
What is gum disease?
The milder form of the condition is called gingivitis, where bacteria accumulate on the surface of teeth, leading to gum bleeding while brushing and flossing. As the infection progresses, the body's immune system kicks in. But it ends up being counterproductive as inflammation — the body's response to the bacteria — causes gums to pull away from the teeth. Without treatment, a tooth can lose support and fall off. The advanced stage is called gum disease or Periodontitis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gum disease affects half of Americans aged 30 or above. In other words, nearly 64.7 million Americans could be battling the most advanced form of infection.
What is the link between gum disease and dementia?
Certain bacteria behind gum disease could increase the risk of developing dementia and memory loss. Multiple theories can explain the link between oral health and the brain, Demmer tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
Previous research has shown that bleeding or ulcerated gums provide entry for a bacteria named Spirochetes, Demmer explains. Evidence suggests that it colonizes the brain and sets off inflammation. This might lead to damage and subsequent dementia.
Another pathogen involved in gum disease named Porphyromonas gingivalis may also have a role. During dental procedures or even while brushing and chewing, the bacteria can find its way to the brain. Once at the site, it could release toxins that may lead to increased production of proteins that trigger Alzheimer's disease, according to Demmer. Further, studies have pointed out that people with the condition harbor more bacteria in their brains.
What did researchers find in the new study?
At the end of the study, the team measured the mental abilities of 4,559 people, of whom 1,569 developed dementia. About 14% of participants with healthy gums, 22% with severe gum disease, 23% with no teeth developed dementia.
The results suggest that people with no teeth had about twice the risk of developing dementia and mild cognitive impairment and those with moderate or severe gum disease suffered a 20% greater risk.
The study does not prove that gum disease causes dementia. Instead, it only adds weight to the growing body of evidence linking the two conditions. "In the future, randomized controlled trials [RCT] that randomly assign participants to receive advanced therapy for gum disease (or more frequent preventive dental hygiene visits) are some approaches that will be necessary to prove the link," Dr Demmer says. RCTs are experiments that maintain the integrity of the findings by eliminating bias.
How you can lower the risk?
Measures such as brushing your teeth twice a day, regular flossing to remove plaque, and appointments with dentists can help. Experts recommend avoiding smoking or chewing tobacco to lower risk. "Good dental hygiene is a proven way to keep healthy teeth and gums throughout your lifetime," Demmer says. The study is published in Neurology.