Taking great care of your teeth—with daily brushing and flossing—may dramatically cut risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to surprising new research.
British scientists report finding signs of gum-disease bacteria in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The new study adds to a rapidly growing body of evidence strongly linking periodontal (gum) disease to greatly increased risk for the memory-robbing disorder.
Byproducts of this bacterium, known as Porphyromonas gingivalis (P. gingivalis), were found in brain samples of four out of ten Alzheimer’s patients, but not in samples from ten people of similar age without dementia, according to the study published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
P. gingivalis is commonly found in people with chronic periodontal (gum) disease, and can enter the bloodstream through such everyday activities as eating, brushing, and invasive dental treatments, and from there, potentially travel to the brain.
That’s scary considering that periodontal disease—a chronic inflammatory disease of the gums and bones supporting the teeth—affects nearly 50 percent of American adults over age 30, and 70 percent of those age 65 or older, the American Academy of Periodontology reports.
In a 2010 study involving 152 people, NYU dental researchers linked inflamed gums to greatly increased risk for cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s. The study compared mental function at ages 50 and 70 and found that people with gum inflammation were nine times more likely to score in the lowest category of mental function than those with little or no inflammation.
The link held true even when such risk factors as smoking, obesity, and tooth loss unrelated to gum disease were taken into account. The association was also seen in people who already had impaired cognitive function at age 50: gum disease made things get even worse.
The new British study discussed above adds to a 2012 study in which 158 cognitively normal people were checked for antibodies to gum-disease bacteria in their blood (indicating exposure to these bugs).
People with the antibodies were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or cognitive impairment in later years than were people without the antibodies, suggesting that “periodontal disease could potentially contribute to AD onset/progression,” the researchers concluded.
What’s the link between oral bacteria and memory loss? “One theory is that these pathogens may generate inflammation in brain cells involved in Alzheimer’s, such as the glial cells,” says Bradley Bale, MD, medical director of the Heart Health Program at Grace Clinic in Lubbock, Texas.
“One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is activated glial cells, with high levels of inflammatory molecules that lead to nerve cell damage and destruction,” adds Dr. Bale.
A toothbrush can be a powerful weapon against Alzheimer’s, a 2012 study suggests. California researchers tracked 5,468 seniors over an 18-year period and found that those who didn’t brush daily were up to 65 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who brushed three times a day.
To keep your teeth—and possibly your brain—in excellent health, follow these tips from Dr. Bale:
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