Keep your gums and chompers spick and span, folks, because there's a growing body of evidence that shows that your dental health may affect your risk of dementia, The Washington Post reports.
"People should really be aware that oral health is really important," Anita Visser, a professor of geriatric dentistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, told the newspaper.
For example, one 2017 study cited by WaPo that involved nearly 28,000 people in Taiwan found that having periodontal disease, or gum disease, for ten years or more increased the risk for contracting Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, by a factor of 1.7.
A 2022 metaanalysis of 47 studies on the matter also found that poor periodontal health and tooth loss was associated with cognitive decline and dementia.
As to why, further research has drawn more tangible links between certain mouth bacteria and Alzheimer's. In particular, a 2019 study discovered that the P. gingivalis bacteria, which causes gum disease, was popping up in the autopsied brains of Alzheimer's patients.
In testing in mice, that study found that the mouth bacteria's intrusion into the brain seems to cause amyloid β to appear, a peptide that has long been considered central to Alzheimer's, as well as worsening inflammation in the brain, also thought to be linked to the disease.
Like Alzheimer's itself, though, the exact medical details of the apparent link remain hazy. As WaPo notes, dementia patients may find it harder to keep up with dental care, and so poor oral hygiene may be a symptom and not a cause. The relationship could even be bidirectional, or both a symptom and a cause.
And so, the consensus is nuanced. Another 2022 analysis concurs that the evidence so far suggests a bidirectional relationship, but notes that a causal link between gum disease and Alzheimer's still hasn't been firmly established.
"It's really complicated," Visser told the WaPo. "And this is why we cannot say, 'Oh, if you have periodontitis, you will get Alzheimer's disease.' But we know now that if you have severe periodontitis, the chance of getting Alzheimer's disease is bigger."
Without a greater body of research, there’s no definitive conclusions to be made yet. But at the end of the day, there’s also no excuse to not floss and brush your teeth. Your brain may well thank you for it in addition to your teeth and gums — as well as those around you.
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