It is both interesting and important to understand the links between different diseases and conditions. An incredible machine, our bodies are very good at indicating trouble through physical symptoms, even when the condition is cognitive.
As a dental professional, I was struck by a recent study which looked at Alzheimer’s patients and found that suffering from gum disease (or periodontitis) was a critical sign of more rapid cognitive decline. Run in England, the study showed that, regardless of the severity of their cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s patients with more serious gum disease declined more rapidly. The research group that ran this study has also run other studies on Alzheimer’s patients, and found that conditions such as chest infections, urinary tract infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes are also associated with a faster progression of the disease.
This research group had not previously examined gum disease in Alzheimer’s patients because medical doctors tend to leave oral problems to dental professionals. However, one of the researchers noted that gum disease is an important and common low grade chronic infection. In general, inflammation is associated with changes in the brain, and gum disease is associated with increased markers of inflammation. Gum disease may also cause chronic low-grade inflammation in the rest of the body.
So, what is the connection between Alzheimer’s and gum disease? One obvious theory is that cognitive impairment leads to adverse oral health, as patients can no longer care properly for their teeth and mouths. But another theory is that periodontal disease may have an actual influence on cognition, possibly as an independent risk factor for the onset of new cognitive impairment, including Alzheimer’s disease, or possibly as accelerating a patient’s decline once a cognitive impairment (such as Alzheimer’s disease) has been diagnosed.
While this new study suggests some connection, it is not clear what the connection is between gum disease and Alzheimer’s, and if it is in any way causal. Further studies are needed to assess whether treating the gum disease would also slow cognitive decline. But we do also know that gum disease has been associated with other serious conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
It is fascinating and vital to understand the connections that medical researchers are making between oral and dental hygiene, and general physical health and wellbeing. Needless to say, such research should inspire all of us to take good care of our mouths and teeth. It should also encourage people to avoid putting off any important dental work, like dental implants. Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd residents, as well as other residents of the region, should feel free to make an appointment to discuss their oral needs and concerns with me.