On average, there are about 700 different species of bacteria that live in your mouth, many of them fairly innocuous, but some of them potentially harmful. Some of these species of bacteria, when left unchecked and untreated, may actually contribute to periodontal disease, which can include inflammation of the gums and ultimately damage to the teeth.
According to the latest clinical research, the same species of bacteria that contribute to gum disease may also play a role in the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms. Here is a quick summary of this biological connection, along with some implications for periodontal care.
What is Periodontal Disease?
When we talk about periodontal disease, we are referencing any condition that is caused by the infection of your oral tissues, which are used to hold your teeth in place. Those who develop infections of the gums may experience a number of telltale symptoms, including loose teeth, bleeding of the gums, swelling of the gums, and even tooth loss.
What is the link to Alzheimer’s? Bacterial infections of the gums also generate inflammatory molecules, which can travel from the initial infection site through the bloodstream, in some cases reaching the brain.
For a long time, clinicians have suspected that these traveling molecules may be contributing factors in the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms. Now, there is a growing body of research to back up this claim.
Gum Disease and Alzheimer’s: What Does the Research Say?
One recent study notes that gingivitis, one of the most common types of gum disease, is potentially a risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. According to the study, “the bacterial load and the inflammatory reaction related to periodontitis can intensify the inflammation in the central nervous system, eventually favoring the onset of disease.” The study stops short of declaring gum disease a warning sign for dementia, but it does recommend further inquiry.
This is not the only study to suggest a link between Alzheimer’s and oral disease. There is another body of evidence that suggests periodontal disease, along with tooth loss, can contribute to increased levels of plasma, which in turn “leads to inflammatory processes affecting the brain, contributing to cognitive decline.” The study goes on to address several potential links between periodontal disease, tooth loss, and Alzheimer’s:
- Bacterial infections, such as the kinds that cause gum disease, can also lead to chronic and localized inflammation, potentially having an adverse effect on the health of the brain and general cognitive behavior.
- Tooth loss and gum disease may also result in “decreased quality of feeding with decreased intake of vitamins and nutrients, which are important for the health of the [central nervous system].”
- When you lose teeth (a common effect of untreated gum disease), it means diminished chewing capacity. Good, healthy chewing contributes to cerebral blood flow and oxygenation, both of which help protect the brain from disease.
Studies also show that tooth loss and gum disease can lead to decreased grey matter volume. Grey matter is a defensive mechanism that helps protect the brain from bacterial infection, yet over time, unaddressed periodontal problems can cause the grey matter to atrophy, thus leading to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Gum Disease, Tooth Loss, and Alzheimer’s: A Vicious Cycle
Not only do studies show a link between the development of periodontal disease, loss of teeth, and progression of dementia symptoms, but the inverse may also be true. That is, patients who exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia may experience a decrease in oral health and hygiene habits, which in turn make gum disease and tooth loss more likely to occur.
As our first study affirms, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease may result in the patient’s inability to maintain good oral hygiene. For these patients, oral health issues will continue to worsen as the disease progresses. This can result in loss of teeth and bone at an early age with can directly affect the progression of Alzheimer’s disease due to inflammation in the gums and mouth.
Oral Hygiene is the Answer
Of course, patients will want to do everything possible to stop the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s symptoms. One of the key considerations should be maintaining good, consistent oral hygiene.
The team at MK Perio not only offers cleanings, but our core mission is to offer supportive periodontal health maintenance and comprehensive solutions. Whenever possible, our periodontists will help you save your existing teeth and help your body heal itself through holistic dental education and continued aftercare.
We would love to talk with you further about ways to curb gum disease and tooth loss, or heal from more minor periodontal issues as quickly and holistically as possible. Contact the team at MK Perio to learn more.