Could poor dental health lead to brain shrinkage?

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Dental health and brain size may be closely linked, new research suggests. Malquerida Studio/Stocksy
  • Tooth loss and gum disease may be linked to reduced brain volume, which reflects shrinking brain tissue, a new study suggests.
  • The areas of the brain affected are related to cognition, so dental problems have been linked to loss of cognitive function and Alzheimer's disease.
  • In people without severe gum disease, having fewer teeth is associated with reduced brain volume.
  • Although the findings suggest a strong link between dental problems and reduced brain volume, it's unclear whether one causes the other.

A new study finds tooth loss, gum disease or periodontal disease, as well as shrinkage in areas of the brain thought to be involved in memory, particularly in Alzheimer's disease. Brain volume is an indicator of shrinkage and loss of cognitive function that occurs with age or disease.

Whether poor dental health leads to reduced brain volume, or vice versa, was beyond the scope of the study. Still, the findings suggest that good dental health should prioritize brain health.

Research shows that missing a tooth is equivalent to nearly a year of brain shrinkage, while severe gum disease is equivalent to 1.3 years of brain aging.

The study found that the area of ​​the brain associated with poorer dental health was the left side of the brain. hippocampus. The hippocampus is thought to be involved in learning and memory.

The study involved 172 Japanese people living in the community. Their average age is 55 years or older. At the start of the study, they underwent thorough dental and periodontal examinations and memory tests, in which they showed no evidence of cognitive decline.

On two occasions, four years apart, each participant's brain volume was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and they also underwent additional oral exams to measure gum disease and tooth loss.

The researchers found that in people without severe gum disease, fewer teeth were associated with greater hippocampal volume loss. Perhaps paradoxically, for people with severe gum disease, more There is a greater degree of hippocampal atrophy in the tooth arrangement.

The study was published in Neurology.

“Functional differences between the left and right hippocampi remain controversial and the specific details are unclear,” said the study's lead author Dr. Satoshi Yamaguchi of Tohoku University Graduate School of Dentistry in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.

However, Dr. Yamaguchi noted that research shows that Alzheimer's patients have more severe shrinkage of the left hippocampus.

“The left hippocampus plays a critical role in cognitive abilities, particularly in memory formation and spatial orientation. Reductions in its volume may lead to cognitive impairments, including memory loss and difficulties with spatial navigation,” New York University explained Dr. Bei Wu, associate dean for research at the Rory Meyers School of Nursing, who was not involved in the study. .

The study was careful not to assume a cause-and-effect relationship between dental health and hippocampal atrophy, or vice versa.

Dr. Bei Wu posited a hypothesis: “One theory might be that gum disease causes inflammation throughout the body.”

“Chronic inflammation is known to have a variety of negative effects on the body, including potential damage to brain cells. This may lead to a reduction in hippocampal volume. Dr. Wu explains.

Another idea, he said, is that “tooth loss and gum disease may lead to changes in diet and nutrition, which may also affect brain health.”

Dr. Yamaguchi suggested two other possibilities. First, the pathogens that cause periodontal disease may invade the brain and damage neural tissue. Second, “fewer teeth reduce the stimulation of chewing, which can lead to brain shrinkage,” he said.

Other epidemiological studies have linked gum disease to a variety of chronic health conditions, including mental health problems and autoimmune, cardiovascular, and cardiometabolic diseases.

The study found that having gingivitis (early stage gum disease) or periodontal disease was associated with an 18% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a 26% increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a 7% increased risk of other cardiometabolic diseases. Dissonance.

according to Department of Disease Control, almost half of Americans over the age of 30 have some form of periodontal disease. For those over 65, this rises to 70.1%.

Dr. Yamaguchi said an important takeaway from the study is that tooth loss and gum disease may have intertwined effects on cognition:

Because tooth loss and periodontal disease co-exist and influence each other in the mouth, they should be considered together. In mild periodontal disease, the effects of inflammation are less pronounced, so the association between tooth number and brain atrophy can be directly observed .

Dr. Wu noted that having fewer teeth without severe gum disease was associated with reduced hippocampal volume, but that having more teeth with severe gum disease had the same result, Dr. Wu said:

“The results of this study suggest that these factors may contribute to brain aging in a combined or synergistic manner, rather than individually. Therefore, this study highlights the importance of considering tooth loss and gum disease when studying the effects of tooth loss and gum disease on brain aging. Importance of interactions between gum diseases.

It's important to keep your teeth healthy, not just to save them. Future studies should use data from other cohorts to validate these findings,” Dr. Wu added.

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