What happens in your mouth doesn’t stay in your mouth.
Gum inflammation and infections tend to have wider effects in your body beyond only damaging your gum tissues and teeth.
For instance, it’s a medical fact that gum disease is linked to heart disease. And now the latest research links gum infections to memory problems.
Scientists report that inflammation and infection in and around your teeth can damage brain neurons in ways they’ve never before realized. Here’s the story.
Twice the Risk for Memory Loss
A long-term study at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis shows that gum problems, especially serious infections that lead to tooth loss, significantly increase your risk of developing cognitive issues, and even dementia. You probably won’t see the effects on your brain until decades after you first notice the blood on your toothbrush that’s a typical symptom of sick gums.
“We looked at people’s dental health over a 20-year period and found that people with the most severe gum disease at the start of our study had about twice the risk for mild cognitive impairment or dementia by the end,” says researcher Ryan Demmer.
Dr. Demmer’s research analyzed the oral health of more than 8,200 people with healthy memories and an average age of 63 when the research began.
When research began, researchers began testing everyone’s memory and cognitive function as well as giving participants a full dental exam that measured gum health, how much their gums bled and how far their gums had receded. Researchers recorded very detailed results of the dental exams finding:
- 22 percent with no gum disease
- 12 percent with mild gum disease
- 12 percent with severe gum inflammation
- Six percent with severe gum disease
- Eight percent with moderate tooth loss
- 11 percent with severe tooth loss
- 12 percent with disease in their molars
- A whopping 17 percent with no teeth left at all.1
After 18 years, the researchers found that the people who had severe gum disease and had lost the most teeth had double the risk of MCI (mild cognitive impairment) and Alzheimer’s, as well as another type of dementia, compared to folks who had all their teeth and healthy gums.
Among those who still had some teeth but had what dentists consider severe and intermediate gum disease, the risk for memory problems increased by 20 percent when compared to people with healthy gums.
How Does Gum Disease Damage Your Memory?
Another review was performed in South Korea using ten years of health data from 262,349 people over age 49. This study revealed just how gum disease might damage memory.
The researchers suggested that bacteria from infected gums enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier and travels into the brain. The bacteria trigger inflammation of brain tissue and production of many of the toxic proteins (like beta-amyloid) that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.2
To back up that conclusion, the researchers pointed to another study that revealed the bacterium that drives gum disease, called Porphyromonasgingivalis, is present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.3
Finally, researchers suggested there’s a third way that gum infection could cause memory loss, by damaging the lining of the blood vessels that lead to the brain. Previous studies suggest that this damage is also linked to an increase in toxic proteins within brain tissue.4
Gum Disease Damages Your Vision, Too
Along with damage to your memory, studies also link gum disease to an increased risk of eye damage and blindness.5 In particular, researchers found age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a significant cause of irreversible vision loss in older people, is linked to periodontal disease.
Recently, lab tests at the Dental College of Georgia, Augusta University, showed that the pathogens causing gum disease can invade retinal cells and cause damage that leads to AMD. The microbes also make epigenetic changes– shifts in the way DNA behaves – to the cells in the eye that render the eyes more vulnerable to being blinded by the disease.6
In addition, tests at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine showed how gum disease can damage your cardiovascular system and increase your risk of stroke.7
This research demonstrates:
- “Large artery strokes” caused by blockage of intracranial arteries in the brain happen twice as often in people with gum disease.
- The risk of having a stroke caused by blockages in blood vessels in the back of the brain is tripled in people with gum disease.
- The risk of having severely blocked brain arteries is 2.4 times higher in those with gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, over those with healthy gums.
The Clear Message?
Gum disease is without question a modifiable risk factor for memory loss—not to mention vision loss and heart disease. In other words, you can do something about it, and you should.
Along with a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, and at least a modicum of exercise, your lifestyle should include daily brushing and flossing coupled with regular visits to the dentist for a thorough cleaning you can’t possibly do at home.
A germ-killing mouthwash is probably even more effective than brushing and flossing (I do all three). Listerine, that ancient standby, is quite effective but contains alcohol, which may slightly increase the risk of oral and esophageal cancers. The good news is you only need it a couple of times a week. And of course there are excellent natural mouthwashes available at health food outlets.
If you’re like some people who hate visiting your dentist—or your visit is overdue—I hope you’re now motivated by the fact that clean, healthy teeth and gums equate to a clear, healthy memory—plus clear vision and clear blood vessels and arteries to boot.
In my experience, outright tooth loss is most common among the poor. And I suspect the same is true of gum disease. Perhaps they lack the education and weren’t taught how to care for their teeth, or they don’t have the resources, and this in turn sets them up for a host of other diseases.
The Minnesota study described above involved an older generation who may have had poor dental care compared to what most people (I hope) have now. I know in my parents’ generation there were a lot of people with false teeth. It was common. With luck, poor dental care is becoming a thing of the past as a cause of dementia.