Your dentist knows a lot more about your health than just the state of your gums and teeth. Just by examining your mouth, your dentist can detect signs of Crohn’s disease and oral cancer. Now, a recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) suggests your dentist may even be able to predict, and possibly diagnose, Alzheimer’s disease based on the health of your gums.
Chronic periodontitis is more commonly known as gum disease, and it’s the most common type of periodontitis, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s caused by plaque buildup and involves slow deterioration of the gums, destruction of the adjacent bones, and tooth loss. Symptoms include gum swelling, discolored, bleeding, and sensitive gums, as well as bad breath and pain chewing—but it is treatable and preventable. Check out the other things your dentist wishes you knew.
In prior studies, investigators have linked periodontitis and dementia. To find out what’s behind this connection, researchers, at the UIC College of Dentistry and the University of Melbourne in Victoria infected mice with the bacteria responsible for periodontitis. After 22 weeks, the researchers examined the mice’s brains. Their results, published in the journal, PLOS ONE, revealed that the brain tissue of the mice exhibited the damage typically seen in Alzheimer’s patients: inflammation, degeneration of neurons, and the buildup of a substance called beta-amyloid plaque.
“Our data not only demonstrate the movement of bacteria from the mouth to the brain, but also that chronic infection leads to neural effects similar to Alzheimer’s,” Keiko Watanabe, DDS, MS, PhD, professor of periodontics at the UIC College of Dentistry and corresponding author on the study, said in a press release. The discovery was a big surprise, Dr. Watanabe noted. “We did not expect that the periodontal pathogen would have this much influence on the brain, or that the effects would so thoroughly resemble Alzheimer’s disease.” And what makes the findings particularly powerful is that the study used a wild-type mouse, which is not primed to develop Alzheimer’s (unlike other specially-bred lab mice). Find out the early signs of Alzheimer’s symptoms every adult should know.
The important takeaway, according to Dr. Watanabe is that the bacteria that causes gum disease may kick-start the development of Alzheimer’s. And understanding potential causes is crucial for developing treatments. In addition, says, Dr. Watanabe, there is so much people can do “for their personal health by taking oral health seriously.” Next, don’t miss the 50 habits that reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.