According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are more than 6 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. While we currently don’t have a cure, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. One of these is by taking better care of your mouth.
How are Alzheimer’s and oral health connected? Having poor oral hygiene leads to bacteria, gum inflammation, and gum disease, which increase your risk of developing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Taking better care of your oral health can reduce your risk.
You may be wondering how your mouth can affect what is happening in your brain. In this article, we’ll review how Alzheimer’s and oral health are linked and provide some quick tips for keeping your mouth—and therefore your brain—in top shape.
Alzheimer’s and Oral Health: Are They Linked?
As a greater number of people live longer, the number of people with Alzheimer’s is expected to grow. And though it’s not a new disease, the rate of Alzheimer’s diagnoses has increased significantly over the last 40 years and is expected to continue.
In recent studies, it was discovered that Alzheimer’s and oral health may be more closely linked than previously realized. The association between mouth bacteria and memory loss isn’t something new; what we didn’t know until recently was how much of an impact it has on cognitive decline.
Let’s take a closer look at this connection between Alzheimer’s and oral health.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease—the most common form of dementia—is a progressive disease in which there is a buildup of proteins in the brain. Neurons no longer communicate with each other and they shrink and die. Alzheimer’s patients suffer from memory loss and often have changes to their behavior and their ability to perform simple tasks.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers and scientists are working diligently to find answers and implement preventative measures, especially when it comes to Alzheimer’s and oral health. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is one thing you can do to help prevent dementia.
Eating a good variety of nutritious foods, participating in regular exercise, and getting enough sleep are all important. In addition, an optimal lifestyle includes maintaining a healthy mouth through proper oral care.
The Importance of Good Oral Health
Oral health is something you can’t ignore—it affects your general well-being, including your ability to eat nutritious food and maintain a healthy weight. Taking good care of your mouth can help prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
Oral health is also linked to overall physical health. For example, research has shown that gum disease is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. The risk of developing diabetes, strokes, and other chronic diseases increases in people who have poor oral health.
Additionally, oral health problems—gingivitis, cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss—are all risk factors for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The Connection Between Alzheimer’s and Oral Health
Alzheimer’s and oral health care are connected. The better you care for your mouth, the healthier you’ll be. But what exactly is this connection?
Many Alzheimer’s patients also have gum disease. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, a person may have trouble with basic oral care. They may forget to brush regularly or not understand why it’s important, leading to worsening oral health. Gum disease is something that caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients know is a risk and continue to try to prevent.
Alzheimer’s and oral health are also linked in another way.
Gum disease may be present before a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. If you don’t take care of your mouth, you’ll have a greater risk of developing cavities and gum disease which includes gingivitis and periodontitis. These conditions can lead to increased inflammation in your body, which is thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Does one come before the other? No one can say for sure that gum disease causes Alzheimer’s, but scientists do know that it plays a role. More and more research now links periodontal disease to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have shown that people who have signs of gum disease are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they get older. Additionally, a recent study of dental claims data in Japan revealed that older adults who are missing more teeth are more likely to also have Alzheimer’s.
When investigating the reasons for the link between Alzheimer’s and oral health, scientists have discovered that the bacteria responsible for gum disease may also have negative effects on the brain.
Alzheimer’s and Oral Health: The Bacteria Link
Gum disease—gingivitis and periodontitis—is an infection in your mouth caused by bacteria.
Just like in your gut, your mouth is home to various types of bacteria. Some are helpful in preventing gum disease. And other types are what cause an infection in your gums. It’s these “bad” bacteria that are responsible for other health problems.
Studies are increasingly connecting Alzheimer’s and oral health—the bacteria in your mouth seem to be involved with developing dementia. They’ve found that people with an increased level of gum disease-causing bacteria or with an imbalance of “good” to “bad” oral bacteria are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Oral Bacteria Spreads Through the Bloodstream
The bacteria from an infection in your mouth can travel to different parts of your body, including your brain.
We’ve known for years that oral bacteria can enter your bloodstream and travel to your heart. It can infect the heart’s lining and valves causing endocarditis—a life-threatening condition.
Oral bacteria has also been linked to respiratory diseases, kidney cancer, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
When oral bacteria infects your brain, scientists think that beta-amyloid proteins may begin to build up as a response. These are the proteins that are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Inflammation from Bacteria
Chronic inflammation is another condition that is closely related to Alzheimer’s. When inflammation occurs in the brain, it is known to lead to the buildup of proteins and cognitive decline.
One of the types of bacteria that is involved with periodontitis (F. nucleatum) is especially known for causing widespread and severe inflammation throughout the body. A recent study done by researchers from Tufts University found that the F. nucleatum bacteria can reduce memory and thinking skills and worsen the signs of Alzheimer’s, possibly because of the inflammation it causes.
Scientists are beginning to research if targeting specific types of gum disease bacteria can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Improving Oral Hygiene for Overall Health
Good oral hygiene is crucial for improving your overall health. Good oral hygiene can help prevent cavities, gum disease, bad breath and other issues that can lead to serious health problems.
Especially knowing the link between Alzheimer’s and oral health, you’ll do well to do everything you can to keep your mouth in top form.
Steps to Improve Oral Health
Some of the steps you can take to improve your oral health include:
- Brush your teeth twice a day. Brushing removes food and prevents the buildup of plaque on your teeth. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush so as not to cause damage to your gums or tooth enamel.
- Use fluoride-free natural toothpaste. Flouride can be toxic to the body so it’s best to choose a natural, fluoride-free toothpaste or natural tooth powder that is non-abrasive to your tooth enamel. They contain natural ingredients like baking soda, bentonite clay, activated charcoal, and more that will help keep your teeth clean, bright, and healthy.
- Floss once per day. Flossing daily—or using an interdental brush—removes bacteria that is trapped between teeth and under gums.
- Use a natural mouth rinse. Rinsing with a natural mouth rinse can help to remove bacteria and food particles that can cause bad breath and cavities. Natural mouth rinses include oils and herbs which promote oral health and have antibiotic properties. Swishing for a few minutes each day can help to remove bacteria and improve your risk of Alzheimer’s and oral health condition overall.
- Eat a balanced diet. Try eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables to improve your oral health and your overall health, too.
- Visit the dentist regularly. At least twice a year have your teeth professionally cleaned and checked for cavities and gum disease. Regular checkups can prevent problems before they start and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and oral health complications.
- Avoid tobacco products. Tobacco products include cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and snuff, as well as smokeless tobacco products like spit or dip. These products lead to gum disease, tooth decay, and other oral health problems.
- Limit sugar intake. Sugary foods and drinks feed the bacteria that live in your mouth, causing tooth decay. Avoid these kinds of foods as much as you can to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and oral health problems.
Alzheimer’s and Oral Health: The Bottom Line
It’s clear that good oral hygiene is crucial for overall health. Gum disease is linked to many aspects of your health including heart disease, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
But, by keeping your mouth healthy and free from infection, you can help prevent or slow down the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Now that you know the connection between Alzheimer’s and oral health, check out our other resources. It’s possible to optimize your oral health and the health of your brain while living a holistic and natural lifestyle.