The 2-Minute Habit That May Prevent Alzheimer's

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.

Gum Inflammation Multiplies Alzheimer’s Risk

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.

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

How do oral bacteria harm the brain?

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.

10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Smile

Keeping Your Mouth Healthy Reduces Dementia Risk

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:

  • Brush at least twice a day, in the morning and at bedtime. Dr. Bale recommends using an electronic toothbrush for two minutes and fluoride toothpaste. 
  • Be sure to brush both the back and front of each tooth, along with your gums and tongue.
  • Floss at least once a day, being sure to wrap the floss around each tooth to remove debris and bacteria. An oral irrigator, such as Waterpik, can also be helpful for cleaning between the teeth.
  • Know the symptoms of gum disease and alert your dentist if you have any of them. The leading warning sign is bleeding when you brush or floss. Others include red, puffy or tender gums, loose teeth, pus between your gums and teeth, and a change in your bite (how your teeth fit together), any of which should warrant a prompt dental checkup.
  • Visit your dentist at least twice a year for a checkup and professional cleaning.  Even if you don’t have any symptoms of gum disease, the checkup should include measuring the pockets between your teeth, which is done painlessly with a dental probe. In the early stages, gum disease may not cause any obvious symptoms.
  • Avoid smoking, which greatly increases risk for gum disease.

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