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Alzheimer's & Dementia: New Study Offers Another Good Reason To Maintain Good Oral Hygiene

Elderly male patient in the dentist chair while young doctor doing dental treatment
The study found the gum disease resulted from patients who stopped maintaining good oral hygiene before dementia developed.

A recent study found a link between gum disease and dementia. The team compared different age groups at baseline, with up to 26 years of follow-up, for more than 6,000 participants.

Researchers studying the cause of Alzheimer's Disease have identified the amyloid and tau proteins that actually accumulate in the brain.

ButDr. Diana Kerwin, a geriatric medicine specialist with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital said they still haven't been able to determine what sets off that cascade and starts the accumulation in the brain tissue.

“And so looking at something like an infectious etiologyis actually something that's been going on for about 10 years, but really in the background,” said Kerwin. “And it hasn't been until the last two to three years when there's actually been an identification of a certain protein called gingipains associated to periodontal disease. And it does have a link to the amyloid protein that accumulates in the brain.”

Interview Highlights

About The Study

  • This started in Down syndrome patients. They noticed patients with poor periodontal health had increased risk of Alzheimer's, and there’s an increased risk with Down syndrome. So someone started to look at that a little bit more closely.
  • Then periodontal health was looked at in more observational studies in geriatric patients or older patients because they are at increased risk of Alzheimer's. They did start to notice that when you looked at patients that had periodontal disease or issues with periodontal disease, there was an increased risk of Alzheimer's as well.

Did Gum Disease Occur Before Or After Dementia?

That's important because the periodontal disease isn’t occurring after the patient has developed memory loss and dementia, and maybe isn’t doing as good of a job or able to keep up with personal care, like personal hygiene, because of the memory loss or dementia. This is occurring before. So we do think it's part of more of the causative rather than effect of the disease itself.

Is Gum Disease Common Among Older Adults?

  • Gum disease is common among several age groups. It does become more challenging for older patients depending on whether they had access to good dental care, and whether they’ve been able to keep up with maintaining their teeth.
  • Also, many older patients are on medication that cause dry mouth that can worsen the health of the gums and the tissues in the mouth.
  • But I do think that this is something that is likely occurring in patients while they still do have the ability to keep up their oral hygiene. It's just, we haven't been able to tell people how important this is.

A Need For Further Study?

  • There's some early evidence that it looks like there is a direct cause between periodontal disease and Alzheimer's, but it's early and it's being looked at.
  • I think we can definitely, at this point, say that poor gum health or periodontal disease will increase the risk of the development of Alzheimer's as time goes on, especially if it's not addressed with good teeth cleaning and healthy gums.
  • It’s definitely a risk factor. When you look at how do I keep my brain healthy, part of it also is likely maintaining good general health. And part of that is your gums and your oral hygiene as well.


Large Study Links Gum Disease With Dementia

NIH: Periodontal Disease in Seniors

Harvard Health: The aging mouth - and how to keep it younger

Interview highlights were lighted edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.