Alzheimer’s and gum disease is a relatively new pairing of terms. A research study published in 2019 linked the two diseases, which is how this pairing came to be. As our population ages and life spans increase, we are seeing an increase in diseases that particularly affect the elderly.
Just like any other devastating disease, scientists are diligently seeking more information about the disease, its cause, and potential treatments and cures. The link between Alzheimer’s Disease and gum disease is the result of this ongoing research.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive degeneration of the nervous system (mainly the brain), which causes its sufferers to experience diminishing cognitive function. Patients experience a slow decline in their ability to function with normal behavioral and social skills. As the disease progresses, the symptoms worsen from memory loss to the inability to care for oneself.
Scientists suspect that the early-onset variety of Alzheimer’s is genetic in nature. The majority of Alzheimer’s patients suffer from the late-onset variety, and its incidence increases with age. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, and over five million Americans currently suffer from it.
Alzheimer’s Disease takes a severe toll on caretakers as they watch their loved one drifts away into memory loss, unpredictable behaviors, and an inability to perform simple tasks. The cost of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is high both financially and emotionally.
Gum disease is an umbrella term for any inflammatory disease of the supporting tissues of the teeth. In a healthy mouth, the teeth are surrounded by a periodontal ligament, alveolar jawbone, and gum tissue (also called gingiva). The cause of the inflammation in all gum diseases is dental plaque. The bacteria living in dental plaque produce toxins that penetrate the gum tissue, resulting in an inflammatory response.
In its earliest stages, this inflammation is acute and limited to the edge of the gum tissue where it meets the teeth. Acute inflammation produces redness, swelling, tenderness, and a tendency to bleed. When addressed early by dental care, gingivitis is reversible.
Gum disease worsens from gingivitis to periodontitis when the inflammatory response begins destroying the ligament and bone surrounding the teeth. This is often accompanied by a transition from acute inflammation, which causes visible signs, to chronic inflammation, which is more difficult to detect. Dentists often refer to periodontal disease as a “silent” disease because many people miss the signs of chronic inflammation in the gum tissues.
If left untreated, periodontitis continues to destroy the attachment between the bone and teeth, which leads to deep pockets or crevices. These deep pockets are perfect hiding places for more and more bacteria to collect. As the pockets deepen, they also attract different strains of bacteria.
Researchers believe there is a genetic component to periodontal disease, meaning some people are more prone to the disease. Since the primary cause of the inflammation is always bacterial buildup in dental plaque, even high-risk individuals can prevent the disease by committing to excellent dental care, both professional and at-home.
Health professionals have studied the link between gum disease and other systemic health problems, namely cardiovascular disease, for decades. We know that bacteria in the mouth can enter the bloodstream through the gum tissues, and bacteria that are specific to periodontal disease have been found in plaque buildup in arteriosclerosis.
A scientific study published in Science Advances in January 2019 found the presence of a specific periodontal pathogen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. As researchers investigated plaques in brain samples of deceased people with Alzheimer’s disease, they found within those plaques the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis.
This type of bacteria commonly resides in the deep pockets of mouths with chronic adult periodontitis. They also found the bacteria present in the cerebrospinal fluid of living Alzheimer’s patients.
This study suggests a link between this particular bacteria and the damage in the brain of those with this neurological disease. Most scientists say that (much) more research is necessary to confirm this link and use this information to work toward prevention and/or cures.
There is no doubt that a chronically unhealthy mouth affects the rest of the body. For too long, people operated under the mythical assumption that what happens in the mouth doesn’t affect your overall health. This may be due to the separation between dentistry and traditional medicine.
As we continue to learn more about the role of chronic inflammation in diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, we see that chronic gum disease can have a disastrous effect on the body.
The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body. It is impossible to have a healthy body with an unhealthy mouth. Bacteria from gum disease can spread throughout the body, potentially worsening major health problems. To keep your whole body healthy, see your dentist regularly and take great care of your teeth at home.