Can Poor Oral Hygiene Lead to Mental Health Decline?

Elderly man with his hand on his head, holding his tooth in pain

Some people may think that our oral hygiene and the rest of our body are separate entities. However, just like any aspect of our personal health, oral hygiene is interrelated with the care and maintenance of our overall well-being. In other words, if we don’t work to maintain healthy teeth and gums, it can impact the health and integrity of other things as well. For example, researchers have revealed that there may be a connection between oral and mental health. In fact, a recent study shows that poor oral health is often related to cognitive decline. Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the findings from this study suggest that visiting the dentist is more important than we may have previously realized, in that regular visits can influence how clearly we think as we get older.

Oral Hygiene Connected to Mental Health

Previous studies have established the relationship between our oral health and our likelihood of developing heart disease, as excessive bacteria from our mouths can have a negative impact on our heart health if not properly treated. Meanwhile, conditions such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS have been shown to worsen oral health problems as both of these diseases contribute to a weakened immune system, thereby increasing the risk of infection. However, scientists have now turned their interest to the potential relationship between our mouths and our brains. After all, proximity alone lends itself to some interesting, if not worrisome, possibilities. In fact, if any such link exists, it is likely due to a common inflammatory pathway, which may contribute to the development of dementia.

Currently, it is estimated that approximately 36% of individuals in the United States aged 70 or older are struggling with some form of cognitive decline. Among this population, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that around 5.4 million people are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia in the U.S. Both the likelihood and severity of such conditions only increase with age, with numbers projected to double by 2050. Because of this and because of the current prevalence of cognitive decline amongst older U.S. adults, researchers have turned their interest towards determining potential causes and contributing factors to conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Thus, as the older population continues to expand, so, too, does research into both oral health and cognition.

Can Poor Dental Health Lead to Dementia?

At present there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that at least some link exists between the higher rates of oral disease amongst older U.S. adults and the increased prevalence of cognitive impairment, particularly dementia. Led by Dr. Bei Wu, researchers from Duke University’s School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina sought to determine what, if any, relationship existed between oral and cognitive health in older adults. To do this, they began by conducting cross sectional and longitudinal analyses on pre-existing studies published between 1993 and 2013. What they found was that certain oral health measures like the number of teeth, cavities, and whether or not the patients had periodontal disease, could indicate whether or not they were at risk of developing some sort of cognitive decline, like dementia.

An Important Topic that Needs More Research

While there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this is an area worth studying and a possible connection to be explored, there is not enough information from this particular analysis to definitively determine whether or not there is a positive correlation. In other words, Dr. Wu and his colleagues have discovered a new avenue of research guided by new questions to consider, but their preliminary study isn’t enough to provide solid answers. That being said, there is certainly enough data which supports this new area of investigation. Dr. Wu himself says that “Clinical evidence suggests that the frequency of oral health problems increases significantly in cognitively impaired older people, particularly those with dementia. In addition, many of the factors associated with poor oral health, such as poor nutrition and systemic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are also associated with poor cognitive function.”

Dr. Wu acknowledges the limitations of his study but urges future researchers to gather data from larger, more representative population samples. Furthermore, by incorporating more sophisticated measures of analysis like cognitive assessments and oral health measures scientists will be able to more accurately determine whether or not there is a direct correlation between oral health and cognitive decline. One fact remains, though, and that is that we should care for every part of our bodies, because each part can affect the whole.

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