Is There a Link Between Gum Disease and Alzheimer's?

May 06, 2019

Is There a Link Between Gum Disease and Alzheimer's?

old man, alzheimers, mind

Chances are that gum disease might not be a condition that you would connect as a contributing factor in the development of Alzheimer’s.

But perhaps you should as a February 2019 article, from Medscape, suggests a very real link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s and that gum disease (and poor oral hygiene in general) can play a role in the onset of dementia, supporting the idea of pathogen-related dementia.

But if this is true, does this mean that having good oral health can help prevent the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s altogether?

What is Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to degenerate and die. Over time, a continuous decline results in decreased thinking and cognitive function, as well as deteriorating social and behavioral skills. In its final stages, Alzheimer’s causes severe memory impairment, compromised motor skills, and radical changes in behavior and personality.

Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Conventional treatment can help ameliorate memory and cognitive symptoms via medications such as Cholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine (Namenda). But these really do more to slow the progression of the disease, and manage symptoms rather than cure it.

The precise causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood. Current thinking attributes its cause to a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors that collectively affect the brain over time.

The current understanding point to problems with proteins in the brain that “malfunction” causing disruptions in the normal workings of brain cells. Eventually brain cells are damaged, lose connections with each other, and die. Interestingly enough, the “damage” usually begins in the part of your brain responsible for memory.

This is not an overnight event as the process begins years before the initial symptoms appear.

What Is Gum, or Periodontal, Disease?

 Periodontal disease is an infection of your gums. This condition basically developes when plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, is allowed to build-up on your teeth and harden.

The early stage of gum disease is known as gingivitis. This condition is often characterized by chronic bad breath, as well as swollen, or bleeding gums. Left untreated, gum disease can worsen into periodontitis. At this advanced stage, the disease can seriously damage your jaw, causing spaces to open up between your gums and teeth. By the time the disease has reached this stage, it is quite possible for your teeth to become loose, or even fall out.

Gum disease also allows for toxins and pathogens to collect in the gums and pass over into the blood thus causing health repercussions far beyond the mouth.

Aside from now being linked with Alzheimer’s, gum disease has also been associated with other health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Of course, prevention of gum disease is ideal but, if you already have some form of periodontal disease then treating it ASAP will benefit your health positively in more ways than simply getting rid of bad breath or keeping your teeth from falling out.

Lowering your risk of developing Alzheimer’s

Could the absence of gum disease lower your risk of Alzheimer’s? The simple answer is yes, it can lower the risk.

Remember that current medical thinking attributes the development of Alzheimer’s to a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Your genetics and family history can predispose one to a condition but, more often than not, that condition is triggered, or encouraged, by environmental factors as well as lifestyle choices.

The good news is that although it may not prevent Alzheimer’s the fact of treating or preventing gum disease can at the very least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

How could this work? Well, one current research-based theory is based upon this path of facts and observations:

  1. In the Alzheimer’s brain, a naturally occurring protein (called Beta-amyloid proteins) clumps together. This clumping creates plaque in the brain. As this plaque collects between neurons it disrupts cell function and communication.
  2. Researchers suspect that one reason this plaque accumulation occurs is to protect the brain cells from invaders–one such invader is the main pathogen responsible for gum disease, Porphyromonas gingivalis.
  3. This exact pathogen (P. gingivalis) has been found in the brain tissue of deceased Alzheimer’s patients.
  4. In addition, the pathogen’s DNA has also been found in the spinal fluid of living Alzheimer’s patients.
  5. This pathogen produces toxic enzymes (called gingipains). Researchers also discovered a direct correlation between higher levels of these toxic enzymes and higher levels of specific proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The working theory here is that pathogens cross over the blood/brain barrier. This triggers the formation of plaque in the brain, which breaks down cell function and communication. Over time this process (highly simplified here) leads to the symptoms and condition known as Alzheimer’s.

Is Gum Disease the Cause of Alzheimer's?

Now, these studies do not conclude that gum disease is THE cause of Alzheimer’s but simply that it could be one of the risk factors for the development, or rate of development, of the disease.

This supports the notion that the prevention, or treatment, of gum disease can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in people predisposed to the disease.

As a word of caution, one should not conclude that maintaining excellent oral health would absolutely prevent or cure this condition. Alzheimer’s Disease is a serious degenerative neurological condition that should never be taken lightly.

The simplicity is that current research does suggest a link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. Science also finds that the development of Alzheimer’s is based upon multiple factors–and not just the inevitability of genetics.

And so, it makes sense to eliminate risk factors wherever possible. As there is no downside to having great oral health, you can’t go wrong with taking steps to ensure you keep your teeth and gums healthy.

Here is to healthy brushing and flossing!

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