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And Don’t Forget to Brush

Dental health and mental health are linked.  That’s right, dental and mental well-being are medically linked.  I have posted a lot about dementia and how consuming too much alcohol, living in polluted air, sustaining a head injury, diet and a lot of other factors influence whether you will someday develop one form of dementia or another. In fact, the consensus among health care professionals is that two of every five cases of dementia could be prevented or delayed by lifestyle and healthstyle changes.

But one healthstyle change that you may not be aware of is basic dental hygiene.  In research recently reported in the journal Neurology scientists linked oral health to memory health.  Scientists followed a group of 8,275 men and women whose average age was 63 at the study’s outset for almost two decades.  Nearly one in five of the study subjects developed Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia over the 18 years they were followed.

The scientists were measuring and carefully tracking a whole host of demographics and health characteristics.  They recorded age, gender and education and tracked cholesterol levels, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, body mass and oral health.  Teeth health, it turns out, provided a significant marker for dementia.  Those with severe gingivitis and tooth loss increased their risk of dementia by 22% over the other people with healthy gums and teeth.  Among those who had lost all their teeth for whatever cause over the years they were followed had a 26% increase in their risk of developing dementia over those with healthy teeth.

The researchers cite the fact that the bacteria that can cause gingivitis can travel from the mucous membrane of the mouth along nerves to the brain.  But the link between dental health and mental health could be more general.  Inflammation  also is a factor in developing dementia.  When a person’s mouth becomes infected as it does with gingivitis that inflammation can spread to other parts of the body like the brain.  That inflammation can affect the cardiovascular system and the pancreas (resulting in diabetes), and both of these also have been demonstrated to have links to dementia.

I have to point out that this is not proof that dental disease causes dementia…but the dental disease does precede the dementia.  If dental disease which is caused by poor dental hygiene does cause dementia, there is trouble on our collective horizon.  Half the population has severe enough periodontal disease to be in the higher dementia risk category!

With the “extra time” all of us may have during this pandemic, may I suggest we spend a bit more time brushing our teeth?

Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.

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