Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms appear, but survival can range from four to 20 years depending on age and other health conditions.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 – 80% of dementia cases. (www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp) Risk factors include aging, with the majority with Alzheimer’s ages 65 and older.
While the memory seems to slow somewhat as we age, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Nor is Alzheimer’s just a disease of old age. Nearly 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 suffer with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s progresses over time, with symptoms that worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s although treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. There is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, and even prevent it from developing.
In one study in the United Kingdom, poor oral hygiene, a common problem among elderly patients, was shown to be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. Through a joint effort of scientists at the University of Southampton and King’s College London, evidence was revealed that periodontal disease may be associated with increased dementia and a more rapid progression in Alzheimer’s patients.
In this research, 59 patients with an average age of 77 were evaluated, each having mild to moderate dementia and at least 10 remaining teeth. None of the participants were smokers and none had received treatment for gum disease in the six months preceding the study.
Each patient received a dental examination by a dental hygienist at beginning of the study and at the six-month point. Additionally, blood samples were taken to measure inflammatory markers in their blood.
Periodontal disease is an inflammatory disease of the gum tissues in the mouth. Because the infectious oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through diseased gum tissues, gum disease is believed to spur inflammation elsewhere in the body.
Prior research has already shown that oral bacteria from gum disease may travel to the liver and increase C-reactive protein levels, which are indicators of inflammation involved in a number of conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
For decades now, researchers have been monitoring how the bacteria of gum disease can trigger inflammatory reactions elsewhere in the body. Coming to light in recent years have been the microbiome. In an article published in 2016 by The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-search-for-link-between-gum-disease-and-cancer-dementia-stroke/2016/09/30/bb966cba-7e9d-11e6-8d0c-fb6c00c90481_story.html?utm_term=.55c32474df19) a microbiome is described as a combination of bacteria, viruses and fungi in a given site, including the warm, moist, dark environment your mouth provides.
Apparently, the microbiome warrants a significant amount of attention, with much known and still much to be found. According to the article, “Between 700 and 1,000 bacteria have been identified in human mouths, roughly double that known in the 1980s. About 30 organisms are identified with gum disease, a number that has more than doubled over the past decade.”
A microbiome from gum disease is suspected to travel through the bloodstream as bacteria seek places to grow elsewhere in the body. The quest for researchers is to learn how they they arrive at the heart, pancreas, and other areas.
As a result of the King’s College London and Southampton University study, the presence of periodontal disease at baseline was associated with six times higher rate of cognitive decline in participants over the study period. Thus, researchers were able to conclude that periodontal disease may increase cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease due to how the body responds to inflammatory triggers.
Although this latest study only evaluated a limited number of participants, researchers were motivated to suggest a larger scale study. To date, the precise mechanisms by which gum disease bacteria may be connected to cognitive decline are not fully understood. However, there is sufficient evidence to explore how periodontal treatment may benefit the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
As higher levels of antibodies to periodontal bacteria are associated with an increase in levels of inflammatory molecules elsewhere in the body, studies continue to show links to increased rates of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease.
Sadly, gum disease is common problem for older people. The condition can be more common in Alzheimer’s sufferers because of a reduced ability to tend to oral hygiene as the disease progresses.
As more is known on the connections between gum disease and how oral bacteria can impact your overall health, I’ll relay it through periodic updates. In the meantime, there is clear evidence that your oral health is an important part of a healthy body AND healthy mind!
If you are experiencing symptoms of gum disease, please don’t delay being treated. Common symptoms include tender gums that bleed easily when brushing, gums that darken in color and bad breath. Remember, though, gum disease can have no obvious symptoms at all.
Your 6-month checkups are an important part of achieving and maintaining good oral health throughout the year. Call 910-254-4555 for an appointment.