Could Better Oral Hygiene Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

We all know that brushing and flossing your teeth is essential for a number of reasons—especially in preventing bigger issues, like gum disease. But how crucial is gum disease prevention anyway?

According to some 2019 studies, your oral health could play a factor in your risk of developing Alzheimer’s!

What Is Gum Disease?

When you eat and drink anything, small particles will hide between the spaces of your teeth. Then, if you don’t brush and floss properly, bacteria will grow around those food particles—which then turn into plaque buildup and gum disease.

Gum disease, or periodontal disease, begins when the soft tissues in your mouth become infected by bacteria. This causes them to appear extra red (or inflamed) and be more prone to bleeding when you brush your teeth. 

Many adults have experienced mild cases of gum disease, but for most it doesn’t become a problem. This is because very early gum disease can easily be prevented or reversed by brushing, flossing, and using the right type of fluoride mouthwash. 

However, when it is left untreated, it can become a more serious problem leading to tooth loss and other health concerns.

People with severe periodontal disease—or periodontitis—have been shown to be at more risk for the following:

  • Stroke.
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • Pregnancy complications. 

And now, a microbe causing gum disease could also have potential links to Alzheimer’s disease.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s is a debilitating brain disease that progressively worsens a patient’s memory. Beyond the typical memory problems of old age, a person with Alzheimer’s is experiencing their brain deteriorating at a rapid rate. Alzheimer’s disease attacks not only life experience memories, but also memories associated with learning. 

This means that a person with Alzheimer’s disease progressively forgets the people who have been a part of their lives for years, while also hindering their capacity to learn new faces. 

People suffering from Alzheimer’s also lose cognitive abilities, like problem-solving. It also affects their ability to learn new information or even relearn old information. Because of this, patients with advanced Alzheimer’s are unable to function and live independently.

Alzheimer’s is a serious condition that affects not only the sufferer, but also everyone around them. As such, researchers are constantly looking for new ways to help treat or prevent this condition. 

Now How Can Your Gums Affect Your Brain?

Studies were performed in 2019 in which the researchers investigated the relationships between  different bacteria and enzymes in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients. This research, published in the journal Science Advances by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), made some surprising discoveries.

Notably, one such bacterium found in many of those Alheimer’s patients’ brains was Porphyromonas gingivalis (P. gingivalis)—one of the main pathogens that causes periodontal disease. 

When this bacterium is introduced into the bloodstream—even through a seemingly unconnected body system,like your mouth—without being treated, it can work its way to more important organs. So, it’s very possible that the pathogens that started your gum disease can work their way from your mouth back into your brain and spinal fluid. 

Why is this important? P. gingivalis produces toxic enzymes, called gingipains, which can destroy brain neurons. In the 53 brains they tested from Alzheimer’s patients, the researchers found gingipains in 96% of those brains. Furthermore, these gingipains were found in the spinal fluid of living patients. This is significant because the spine and brain together make up the central nervous system.

Based on these findings, experiments were then performed with mice to try to confirm this link between gum disease and the gingipains in the brain. These tests seemed to show a link between treating the P. gingivalis (the gum-disease-causing bacterium) and effectively stopping the gingipains in the brain. 

What Does This All Mean for You?

Does this mean you can prevent Alzheimer’s disease by brushing your teeth better? While the results of the studies are certainly interesting, there is still a lot of work to be done before they can come to any conclusive results. 

The brain is a complicated organ, and years of study has shown that Alzheimer’s isn’t caused by just one little bacterium; there are many things that could play a role in a person developing Alzheimer’s disease, and there is still just as much that we don’t know about the disease in general. 

Though it is interesting that many (if not most) of the Alzheimer’s patients in the study had this gum disease bacteria in their brains, that does not mean that the one caused the other. Patients with Alzheimer’s may be more likely to develop gum disease, but having gum disease does not indicate that a person will be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s as well. 

Take Care of Your Oral Health, Take Care of Your Overall Health

While it may not be completely clear if gum disease puts you at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease specifically, a healthy mouth is still key to maintaining better overall health. So while researchers keep looking into this new development, you keep brushing and flossing your teeth for your best health interests.