New Insights on the Link Between Oral Health & Brain Health

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Oral Health, Periodontal Health

“Collectively,” the authors of a 2019 scientific review affirmed, “experimental findings indicate that the connection between oral health and cognition cannot be underestimated.” Specifically, their concern was with the link between gum disease and cognitive health, and only more evidence has amassed in the years since.

Last summer, for instance, a new study in the journal Neurology explored the potential relationship between oral health and hippocampal atrophy – a progressive shrinking and tissue loss of a seahorse-shaped structure in the brain’s temporal lobe (i.e., the hippocampus) that plays roles in memory, learning, and emotional processing.

Over time, severe enough hippocampal atrophy leads to the telltale memory loss symptoms seen in Alzheimer’s patients such as forgetfulness, confusion, inability to retain new information, disorientation, and other cognitive impairments.

To explore the relationship, the researchers collected data from 172 independently living older adults with no cognitive decline. Each underwent a brain MRI and dental and medical exams twice, with four years between each set of evaluations.

Analysis of the data showed that both tooth loss and gum disease are associated with a faster rate of atrophy in the hippocampus.

This study revealed that having fewer teeth is associated with a faster rate of left hippocampal atrophy in patients with mild periodontitis, whereas having more teeth is associated with a faster rate of atrophy in those with severe periodontitis.

Periodontitis is the advanced form of gum disease in which tissue damage occurs. Based on their findings, the research team suggests that association with brain wasting may be greater than its association with simple aging.

These results highlight the importance of preserving the health of the teeth and not just retaining the teeth.

Of course, this study – like many others that have come before – only shows an association. An even more recent study, just published in the Journal of Periodontal Research, purports to show a causal relationship between gum disease and the brain cortex structure.

Here, the research team used genetic data from nearly 52,000 patients to see if genes linked to gum disease are associated with differences in the brain’s outer layer. Gum disease genes were linked to less surface area in regions involved in memory, learning, and emotion regulation. The genes also showed links to a thinner cortex in a memory-related brain area. These findings suggest that gum disease likely contributes to changes in important parts of the brain over time.

“Periodontitis,” concluded the authors, “causally influences the brain cortical structures, implying the existence of a periodontal tissue–brain axis.”

Sounds like great motivation for taking care of your gums’ health!

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