From tooth decay to bad breath, there are many reasons why we should make sure we’re taking proper care of our teeth. After all, we need them for more than just a pretty smile. If we don’t practice good oral hygiene the results can be disastrous. Not brushing teeth regularly and properly can lead to some pretty serious illnesses. Recent research reveals that the relationship between our dental health and our overall health may be stronger than we previously anticipated. In fact, if we don’t maintain our oral hygiene, we might be much more likely to experience some serious mental health consequences, such as Alzheimer’s disease, as well.
Oral Hygiene and Alzheimer’s
Interestingly, a study conducted by researchers from New York University (NYU) found that there is a link between gum inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. This follows 20 years of data which illustrates the association. The size of the population examined was fairly small. Researchers studied 152 participants who were enrolled in the Glostrop Aging Study. This study sought to explore the relationships between the oral, psychological, and medical health of Danish men and women. By the end of the study, all of the subjects were over the age of 70.
Researchers were especially interested in comparing the participants’ cognitive function between the ages of 50 and 70. In studying this, they found that individuals who had gum disease at the age of 70 also had low scores of cognitive function. The researchers found that study participants with inflammation of the gums were at least 9 times more likely to have lower cognitive scores. Even after taking into account certain variable factors like obesity, cigarette smoking, and tooth loss that is unrelated to gum inflammation, there was a visible correlation between a low cognitive scores and gum inflammation.
Other researchers followed up on the findings of this study with studies of their own. One such report came from a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Building on the results of the NYU study, these researchers examined the brain samples of 10 patients who were living with Alzheimer’s and compared them with 10 brain samples from individuals who did not have the disease. Medical News Today reports their findings of “a bacterium – Porphyromonas gingivalis -” which was found in “the Alzheimer’s brain samples but not in the samples from the brains of people who did not have Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s vs. Gum Disease
What is particularly interesting about this discovery is that this bacterium is typically found in individuals who suffer from chronic gum disease. Study co-author, Dr. Sim K. Singhrao says there’s enough evidence to suggest that two of the three main bacteria which cause gum disease can become mobile, and have consistently been found in the tissue of the brain. Dr. Singhrao explains: “These motile bacteria can leave the mouth and enter the brain via two main routes…They can use their movement capability to directly enter the brain. One of the paths taken is to crawl up the nerves that connect the brain and the roots of teeth. The other path is indirect entry into the brain via the blood circulation system.”
For example, if a patient were to have bleeding gums, Dr. Singhrao posits that every time they clean their mouth or eat food, gum disease-causing bacteria can and likely will enter the bloodstream. He adds that “P. gingivalis is particularly interesting as it has found ways to hitch a lift from red blood cells when in the blood stream and instead of getting ‘off the red blood cell bus’ in the spleen, they choose to get off in the brain at an area where there are no immune checkpoints. From there, they spread to the brain at their will. In addition, in older individuals, the blood vessels tend to enlarge and become leaky.”
Gum Disease is Highly Preventable
Dr. Singhrao and his colleagues conclude that P. gingivalis can enter the bloodstream through gum disease. Using lab rats to test this theory, the researchers confirmed the ability for the bacterium to find its way to the brain once it has entered the bloodstream. They also found that the chemicals which the brain releases in response to the bacterium can inadvertently cause damage. Actually, this response can cause damage to functional neurons in the area of the brain that is related to our memory.
Luckily, gum disease, particularly in younger patients, is fairly preventable with proper oral hygiene and routine care. Further research is needed into the relationship between our oral health and our overall well-being but the results of these studies show the need for dental services and technicians nearby. That being said, if there is at least one take-away, it is that oral health impacts overall body health. So when we take care of ourselves, we must remember not to neglect anything, especially not our teeth.