New research suggests there may be a link between bad oral hygiene and developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Why is this, and what do you need to know?
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and conducted by a team at the University of Central Lancashire School of Medicine and Dentistry, looked at brain samples of those who had died of Alzheimer’s and found that a bacteria that thrives as a result of poor dental hygiene was present in four out of the 10 samples of brain tissue.
With such a small sample, that’s not overwhelmingly convincing, but previous research has suggested a strong link between oral health and dementia. As this is the first study to offer a link between dementia and a specific bacterium, known as Porphyromonas gingivalis, the findings are being treated as significant.
Dr Sim Singhrao, co-author of the study, is quoted as saying: “We are working on the theory that when the brain is repeatedly exposed to bacteria and/or their debris from our gums, subsequent immune responses may lead to nerve cell death and possibly memory loss.”
The theory suggests that whether through general gum disease or as a result of tooth extraction, the bacteria infiltrates the blood system and in due time can make its way to the tissue surrounding the brain.
The researchers believe that exposure to the bacteria and the resulting chemicals the bacteria produce could, over a prolonged period of time, contribute to the impaired brain function that is associated with Alzheimer’s.
It’s important to stress that the researchers have not proved this link and more research will be needed, but established science does offer a rich field of support for the theory that poor oral hygiene and migrating gum bacteria can cause health problems.
Previous research has indicated that poor oral hygiene increases the risk of heart disease and the likelihood of having a stroke. Other investigations have shown a possible link between periodontal disease and memory loss. Poor oral hygiene has also been shown to be a risk factor in pregnancy and a potential cause of premature birth. Other research offers links between compromised oral hygiene and diabetes, as well as osteoporosis.
Simon Ridley, PhD, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research U.K., offers an alternative view on the study, pointing out that: “We don’t know whether the presence of these bacteria in the brain contributes to the disease, and further research will be needed to investigate this. It is possible that reduced oral hygiene, and therefore P. gingivalis infection, could be a consequence of later-stage Alzheimer’s, rather than a cause.”
He goes on to say, however, that based on previous evidence, infections of several different kinds, including oral infections, are known to be linked to Alzheimer’s, so more research to determine the precise relationship is certainly warranted.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are mostly associated with the elderly, usually (though not always) affecting those 65 and over. The number of sufferers is also increasing at an alarming rate as the world’s elderly population continues to rise. In fact, the World Health Organization has predicted that dementia cases could as much as triple, going from 36 million worldwide in 2010 to an estimated 115 million in 2050.
Currently, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s isn’t known and while there are medications that appear effective in slowing the progress of the disease, which has symptoms including memory loss, impaired functionality and motor function, there is no known cure.
On the other hand, oral hygiene is something most of us can control through consistent at-home care such as brushing our teeth regularly, which cuts down on the potentially harmful bacteria, and regular appointments with a health care professional.
So the next time you’re tempted to run out of the door without brushing, maybe think again.
Image credit: Thinkstock.
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