Doctors are studying the relationship between Alzheimer’s and dental disease. There are two aspects of study: 1) the effect Alzheimer’s has on dental health, and 2) the effect that dental health has on the onset of Alzheimer’s.
The Effect of Alzheimer’s on Dental Health
People with Alzheimer’s tend to have poor motor skills, which can interfere with their ability to brush teeth properly. They might not be able brush for the recommended two minutes; they may not be able to reach all the tooth surfaces or even floss properly. They may not be able to apply enough pressure to clean effectively, or they may apply too much pressure and damage the gums and enamel. If motor skills are an issue, the patient can try using an electric toothbrush, which is designed to aid people with poor motor skills. Some toothbrushes also have timers so that the brush will alert you when you have brushed long enough.
People with Alzheimer’s might forget to brush their teeth. They could go for days without brushing while plaque and tartar build up on the teeth. If they wear appliances, such as dentures, they might forget to clean and disinfect them, leaving them vulnerable to the growth of oral bacteria, which can lead to tooth decay. If memory is an issue, you may need to remind the patient when it is time to brush.
People with Alzheimer’s may also take medications that damage their teeth. Some medications can cause dry mouth, and dry mouth can cause tooth decay because your saliva actually helps wash some of the bacteria off your teeth. When medications are syrup-based, they can leave residue on your teeth, which feeds the bacteria and leads to tooth decay. If medications are an issue for a person with Alzheimer's, he may need a prescription for artificial saliva or to to be reminded to gargle or rinse his mouth out after taking medication.
People with Alzheimer’s may also have difficulty articulating when they are having dental discomfort or problems, so regularly scheduled dental check-ups are important.
The Effect of Dental Health on Alzheimer’s
Recent studies have shown that poor dental health could increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
In a study of brain tissue from patients who had suffered dementia, The University of Central Lancashire School of Medicine and Dentistry discovered the presence of the dental bacteria porphyromonas ginvivalis. Brain tissue from patients without dementia did not have these bacteria. Did the dental bacteria cause the Alzheimer's disease in those patients who suffered from it? The answer to that question is still being explored.
Porphyromonas gingivalis is bacteria responsible for gum disease and it is believed this bacteria can enter the blood stream from the mouth and, thus, can enter the brain. Normal activities, such as eating and tooth brushing can potentially push the bacteria into the bloodstream; as can invasive dental treatments, like dental surgery.
While these findings are interesting, it is important to note that the study only used a small sample of tissue – 20 tissue samples total; 10 from patients who'd had dementia, 10 who had not – and the study is still in its preliminary stages. Further, while researchers have discovered the presence of dental bacteria in the brain tissue, they have not determined why some people have it and others do not.
It is not yet clear if poor dental hygiene is the reason why this bacteria was present in the brain tissue of some patients, because they did not have information on the dental health of the brain tissue donors. Additionally, everyone has this bacteria in their mouths, and routine brushing is thought to be one of the ways the bacteria can get into the blood stream--so why wouldn't this bacteria be present in everyone's brain tissue?
Ultimately, the presence of the bacteria in the brain could be due to poor dental hygiene and dental health, or there could be other factors at play, such as the immune system.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t take care of your teeth. Regular brushing, flossing, and rinsing can significantly reduce the amount of bacteria in your mouth and reduce your risk of cavities, gum disease, and more serious dental problems.
Whether or not good dental hygiene prevents Alzheimer’s remains to be seen, but it still has other benefits to your oral health, as well as your overall health and well-being.