Periodontists, dentists who specialize in treating gum disease, have long contended that periodontal disease is linked to a variety of systemic health problems.
Further, new research suggests that periodontal disease may be linked to Alzheimer’s, which is both scary and exciting.
On one hand, this means patients with periodontal disease could be at increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s. On the other, this discovery may help to develop new treatment approaches for an otherwise incurable condition.
Let’s take a look at the link between Alzheimer’s and gum disease, and what you need to know about the risks.
Gum Disease is Linked to Many Systemic Health Problems
Clinical research indicates that patients with gum disease are more likely to have systemic health problems including:
- Heat disease
Gum disease is, too, an issue rooted in inflammation, as are the above conditions and Alzheimer’s. Researchers believe that the bacteria that cause gum disease could potentially cause inflammation elsewhere in the body, too.
The Link Between Alzheimer’s and Gum Disease
Key findings included:
- Brain tissue of deceased Alzheimer’s patients contained the same bacterium that causes gum disease
- Bacterial DNA was found in cerebrospinal fluid samples taken from living Alzheimer’s patients
- Toxic enzymes made by the bacterium were present in brain samples from Alzheimer’s patients, and brains with more toxins tended to have more severe disease
- When the gums of healthy mice were infected with the bacteria, it later showed up in the animals’ brains, which was accompanied by neuronal damage with some characteristics of Alzheimer’s
There’s also evidence that infections of all types may contribute to the pathology of Alzheimer’s Disease:
- Beta-amyloid, which accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and causes neuronal damage, is part of the normal immune response to infections in the brain
- Some preliminary research suggests that other pathogens, including the herpes virus, can cause the production of beta-amyloid in the brain
The brain’s immune response is important for warding off brain infections. The beta-amyloid plaques that form in response to infection are actually trying to envelop the invading pathogens to protect the brain.
However, if this response becomes too severe, it can potentially lead to the over accumulation of these plaques, and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Am I at Greater Risk for Alzheimer’s If I Don’t Floss My Teeth, Then?
These results are intriguing, but the conclusions are too preliminary to draw a direct causative link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. There are many other explanations for these findings that don’t suggest a causative link.
“Correlation” Isn’t Necessarily the Same as “Causation”
Much of the human data is based on correlation. Poor overall health increases the risk of gum disease and systemic diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In some patients, the occurrence of both diseases could be a coincidence.
Everyone Carries Gum Disease-Causing Bacteria
The bacteria that cause gum disease are present at low levels in everyone’s mouth but are increased in patients with gum disease. However, because everyone has these bacteria, it’s unclear how much gum disease actually contributes to the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The Question of Predisposition
The idea that beta-amyloid clears infection is interesting. However, it could be that this occurs in everyone’s brain and only goes overboard in patients already predisposed to Alzheimer’s.
Although these findings are still up in the air, they certainly make a case for good oral health care and hygiene to prevent gum disease. Talk to your dentist about how to prevent and treat periodontal disease at your next checkup.