It might sound like the plot of a horror movie: your gums turning on you by poisoning your brain. But, hard as it may be to believe, a number of new studies suggest that an infection responsible for periodontal disease (gum disease) gives off inflammatory agents that are toxic to brain cells.
Researchers in America and Europe are becoming increasingly convinced that damaged gums might be a factor in dementia and cognitive decline. If you somehow weren’t already sold on the importance of a good brushing and flossing routine, it’s a safe bet that this will change your mind!
How Gum Decay Affects
More Than Your Smile
A few recent studies have proven just how damaging diseased gums can be. While some of the effects such as gum decay and tooth loss are intuitive (but horrifying nonetheless!), others are completely unexpected. Periodontal disease has now been shown to be linked to diabetes, heart problems, and even dementia.1
One fascinating study at the University of Southern California, funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, used twins to examine the effects of gum disease.2 Researchers found that twins with loose or missing teeth (two of the defining characteristics of periodontal decay) before the age of 35 were four times more likely to have dementia later in life.
The study proposed that the link was caused by a lifetime exposure to inflammation – that is, inflammatory agents caused by gum disease were released into the bloodstream. The USC study and others are now showing that inflammatory effects are not limited to the mouth. Instead, these inflammatory agents, which are toxic to brain cells, cause cognitive impairment and memory loss.
Another article, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, drew an even more direct link.3 In it, researchers from the University of Central Lancashire in England found porphyromonas gingivalis, the same bacteria responsible for gum disease, in the brains of four out of ten Alzheimer’s patients. The same study found no evidence of the bacteria in healthy brains.
It turns out healthy gums are good for a whole lot more than a beautiful smile.
What Does This Mean For Me?
What this means is that it’s time to double down on your dental hygiene. There are a couple of easy measures, recommended by the American Academy of Periodontology,4 you can take to prevent decaying gums and related cognitive decline:
- Brush after meals. Brushing after meals is better than before bed and first waking up, because it removes food debris before it can become too embedded in your teeth and gums. Don’t forget your tongue!
- Floss daily. Dental floss reaches the tricky spaces along the gum line that a toothbrush can’t. Flossing is essential for reducing plaque buildup between the teeth and gums.
- Use mouthwash. Gargling with mouthwash should be seen as a third line of defense against plaque and food debris. Mouthwash can eliminate tiny particles that brushing and flossing miss.
- Visit a periodontist. A CPE, or comprehensive periodontal evaluation, is an opportunity for a dental professional to assess your risk of gum disease. Recognizing early warning signs is key to prevention of gum decay.
- Live gum friendly. Avoiding smoking, a diet high in sugar, and clenching or grinding of the teeth are all ways to ensure your gums will stay healthy longer.
We all want our minds to be as sharp as possible, and good dental hygiene is one more simple way to stave off cognitive decline. With all the stress that you put your brain under, the last thing it needs is an enemy occupying the same head!