Most people brush their teeth every day, floss on occasion, and try to get to the dentist at least once a year. But what if good oral hygiene could help to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia? Do you think more people would take their oral health more seriously? In honor of September being World Alzheimer’s Month, we’ll explain how oral health plays a role in Alzheimer’s.
Around 700 bacteria species live in the mouth, including those that might cause gum disease, also known as periodontal disease or gingivitis. According to a recent study performed by National Institute of Aging researchers, bacteria that cause gum disease are linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, particularly vascular dementia. This bacteria is called Porphyromonas gingivalis, and it can move from the mouth to the brain. This bacteria releases an enzyme called gingipains that can destroy a variety of cells including nerve cells. If this bacteria is able to release the enzymes in the brain, the enzymes begin destroying the brain’s nerve cells resulting first with memory loss but can progress to Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Gum disease is caused by an infection of the tissues that hold teeth in place. The main symptoms of this condition are bleeding gums, loose teeth, and even tooth loss. Once gum disease sets in, the bacteria have access to end up anywhere in the body. Bacteria and the inflammatory molecules they produce can travel from the mouth to the brain through the bloodstream and circulatory system.
To test if the harmful bacteria’s enzymes were ending up in the brain, researchers examined the brains of 53 people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and had passed away. Almost all of the brains of the deceased had high levels of gingipain enzyme. Furthermore, it was discovered that the gingipain enzymes rise in count over time. Meaning, if someone did not take care of their oral wellness for 2, 10, or 20 years, that’s X amount of years of gingipain build-up in the brain. Along with Porphyromonas gingivalis, researchers have found other bacterias have traveled from the mouth to the brain in those with Alzheimer's, including the Herpes type 1 virus.
Alzheimer's happens in conjunction with plaque buildup (the same plaque as what is found in the mouth) in the brain's grey matter and "neurofibrillary tangles." These are the remnants of a neuron's internal skeleton collapsing. When a protein can no longer execute its job of cell structure stabilization, neurofibrillary tangles happen. Maintaining good oral health is important in the prevention of bacteria and plaque from traveling to the brain.
The new study adds to the growing body of data that gum disease is one of the factors that can contribute to Alzheimer's disease. But, before you begin brushing and flossing your teeth in a panic, keep in mind that not everyone with gum disease develops Alzheimer's disease, and not everyone with Alzheimer's disease has gum disease – while there is a connection, it’s not an absolute, just rather something to be mindful of. Similarly to how eating a high sugar diet may contribute to diabetes.
Dental offices now have a way to find out who is more at risk, this is done through an OralDNA test. The OralDNA test checks for harmful bacteria linked to chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and even heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. This tool helps assess what bacteria is found in your mouth and what treatment is needed to prevent these diseases. If you’re in the Maryland, Eastern West Virginia, or Southern Pennsylvania area, we here at Potomac Dental Centre can perform an OralDNA test to see how healthy your mouth is.
Interested in an OralDNA test or a quality fluoride toothpaste?
Braak H, Del Tredici K. Alzheimer's disease: pathogenesis and prevention. Alzheimers Dement. 2012 May;8(3):227-33. doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2012.01.011. Epub 2012 Mar 30. PMID: 22465174. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22465174/
Beydoun M, et al. Clinical and bacterial markers of periodontitis and their association with incident all-cause and Alzheimer's disease dementia in a large national survey. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 2020;75(1):157-172. doi: 10.3233/JAD-200064. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/large-study-links-gum-disease-dementia