The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $1.3 million grant over four years to further build on studies linking gum disease and mild to moderate memory loss.
Dentists have known for years that gum disease is linked to heart attacks, strokes and several other chronic diseases. Now researchers at West Virginia University have found a clean mouth may also help preserve memory and reduce future risk for dementia and Alzheimer disease.
"Older people might want to know there's more reason to keep their mouths clean - to brush and floss - than ever," said Richard Crout, D.M.D., Ph.D., an expert on gum disease and associate dean for research in the WVU School of Dentistry. "You'll not only be more likely to keep your teeth, but you'll also reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer disease."
"If you have a gum infection, you'll have an increased level of inflammatory byproducts, Crout explained. "We're looking for markers in the blood that show inflammation to see if there is a link to memory problems. We'd like to go full circle and do an intervention - to clean up some of the problems in the mouth and then see if the inflammatory markers go down."
"The findings could have great implications for health of our aging populations," Crout said. "With rates of dementia and Alzheimer disease skyrocketing, imagine the benefits of knowing that keeping the mouth free of infection could cut down on cases of dementia and Alzheimer disease."
Researchers don't yet understand whether microorganisms in the mouth create health problems, including dementia and Alzheimer disease, or whether the body's inflammatory response is to blame. It may be a combination of both.
Researchers also don't know much about mild to moderate memory loss, even though the connection between severe dementia and gum disease is well known, Crout said.
In the future, dentists may routinely administer memory tests to their older patients, he said.
"A dentist may see a longtime, older patient with an area of the mouth that's showing signs of inflammation because of not being properly cleaned daily," Crout said. "Many times we as clinicians, however, don't think of this as due to a memory problem. The patient may not be flossing or brushing properly as we have instructed they should. But this research indicates that the problem may be due to memory loss as opposed to noncompliance."