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Can poor dental health cause dementia?

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
dentist and patient

31st July 2013 -- Poor dental health and gum disease may be linked to Alzheimer's disease and dementia, a University of Central Lancashire School of Medicine and Dentistry study suggests.

One in three people over 65 in the UK will develop dementia, so there's a lot of focus on trying to find possible causes to help with prevention and new treatments.

Although previous studies have suggested a link between problems with oral health and dementia, this is the first to pinpoint a specific gum disease bacterium in the brain.

Brain study

Researchers looked at donated brain samples of 10 people without dementia and 10 people with dementia. They found the presence of the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis in the brains of four of those with dementia.

This bacterium may play a role in changes in the brain in Alzheimer's disease, contributing to symptoms including confusion and deteriorating memory.

Everyday activity like eating, tooth brushing and some dental treatment could allow the bacteria to enter the brain. Here, the researchers suggest, it could trigger an immune system reaction that results in neurons in the brain being killed.

Oral health link still to be proven

In a statement, Dr Sim Singhrao, senior research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire School of Medicine and Dentistry (UCLan ) says: "We are working on the theory that when the brain is repeatedly exposed to bacteria and/or their debris from our gums, subsequent immune responses may lead to nerve cell death and possibly memory loss."

She says this could mean visiting the dentist could be vital for brain health as well as tooth and gum hygiene: "continued visits to dental hygiene professionals throughout one's life may be more important than currently envisaged with inferences for health outside of the mouth only. To help us prove our hypothesis we are hoping to use the Brains for Dementia Research tissue resource to examine brain tissue from people with both intact and compromised memory who have relevant dental records. The future of the research aims to discover if P. gingivalis can be used as a marker, via a simple blood test, to predict the development of Alzhiemer's disease in at risk patients."

Professor St John Crean, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry says: "Whereas previous studies have indicated a link between dementia and other bacteria and viruses such as the Herpes simplex virus type I, this new research indicates a possible association between gum disease and individuals who may be susceptible to developing Alzheimer's disease, if exposed to the appropriate trigger.

"Research currently underway at UCLan is playing an active role in exploring this link, but it remains to be proven whether poor dental hygiene can lead to dementia in healthy people, which obviously could have significant implications for the population as a whole. It is also likely that these bacteria could make the existing disease condition worse."

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