A younger woman in pajamas stands in front of a mirror holding a toothbrush with toothpaste on it. The reflection in the mirror shows an older version of herself.

Can Poor Dental Health Contribute to a Higher Risk of Alzheimer's Disease?

Good dental care is an important part of overall health. This includes brushing and flossing your teeth, staying away from sugary foods and drinks, and seeing a dentist two times every year. Your dental office visits should happen every six months.

Now, researchers are studying whether or not taking care of your teeth could lead to Alzheimer’s disease. What they have learned was published in two studies. One studied the brains of 53 individuals who had passed away and was published in January 2019.1 Another study examined the brains of 20 people who had passed away in the United Kingdom and was written about in 2013.2

It can begin with bacteria

A type of bacteria called porphyromonas gingivalis is found in the mouth.1 This bacteria can cause gum disease in some people.2 Scientists have found that porphyromonas gingivalis has the ability to travel into the brain from the mouth. Once there, the bacteria is able to release a chemical that can harm the nerve cells in the brain. The damaged nerve cells may eventually cause a person to develop Alzheimer’s disease.1

In the study that examined 53 people’s brains, a large amount of the chemical that causes nerve damage was found in the brains of those people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In addition, the researchers realized that the quantity of this chemical in the brain seemed to increase as time went on.1

In the other study, 10 brain samples from patients with Alzheimer’s were examined after they had passed away. At the same time, 10 brain samples from people who did not have Alzheimer’s were also examined after they had passed away. The researchers found porphyromonas gingivalis in the brains of the 10 people who had Alzheimer's.2

How it can affect the brain

Porphyromonas gingivalis is usually found in the mouth. But, during a serious dental procedure – or even during your regular dental care routine at home - it can enter the bloodstream. From there, the bacteria can make its way to the brain.2

If porphyromonas gingivalis is able to get into the brain, the body’s immune system will begin trying to fight off the bacteria. However, this reaction can also destroy the brain’s neurons.2 The loss of the neurons in the brain can cause a person to experience memory loss, and later develop Alzheimer's.1

What is the next step?

In the future, researchers hope to create a new medication. This medication would be able to keep the chemicals created by porphyromonas gingivalis from damaging the brain’s nerve cells. This could possibly delay, or even prevent people from having Alzheimer's altogether.1

But, since that medication has not been created yet, it is important to keep your teeth and mouth clean. This will help to slow down or prevent porphyromonas gingivalis from developing in the mouth. Experts recommend that people brush their teeth two times every day, floss one time every day, and to remember to visit the dentist on a regular basis.1

To help them continue their research, scientists hope that families of individuals who have passed away would be willing to donate the deceased person’s brain tissue to their research. They also would like to be supplied with the deceased person’s dental records. This will let them learn more about Alzheimer’s disease as it relates to dental health.2

Future of research and medicine

In the years ahead, the experts will also research whether the presence of porphyromonas gingivalis in a person’s bloodstream is a sign that they could eventually develop Alzheimer’s. Doctors could potentially give people a blood test for the bacteria. That could allow them to see if the person is at a higher risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.2

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