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Can Poor Dental Health Cause Dementia?

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD

July 31, 2013 -- Poor dental health and gum disease may be linked to Alzheimer's disease and dementia, a new study from the University of Central Lancashire School of Medicine and Dentistry suggests.

Although past studies have suggested a link between oral health and dementia, this is the first to pinpoint a specific gum disease bacteria in the brain.

Researchers looked at donated brain samples of 10 people without dementia and 10 people with dementia. They found the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis in the brains of four of those with dementia.

This bacteria may play a role in changes in the brain in Alzheimer's disease, contributing to symptoms including confusion and failing memory.

Everyday activities like eating and tooth brushing, and some dental treatment, could allow the bacteria to enter the brain. "We are working on the theory that when the brain is repeatedly exposed to bacteria and/or debris from our gums, subsequent immune responses may lead to nerve cell death and possibly memory loss," says Sim Singhrao, PhD, a senior research fellow at the university.

This could mean that visits to the dentist could be vital for brain health, she says. 

"The future of the research aims to discover if P. gingivalis can be used as a marker, via a simple blood test, to predict the development of Alzheimer's disease in at-risk patients."

More Research Needed

For now, "it remains to be proven whether poor dental hygiene can lead to dementia in healthy people," says St John Crean, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. "It is also likely that these bacteria could make the existing disease condition worse."

Reacting to the findings, Alison Cook, director of external affairs at the U.K.'s Alzheimer's Society, said: "There have been a number of studies looking at the link between dementia and inflammation caused by factors including poor dental health, but this is not yet fully understood. This small study suggests that we need more research into this important area."

Also reacting to the study, Simon Ridley, PhD, head of research at Alzheimer's Research U.K., said: "We don't know whether the presence of these bacteria in the brain contributes to the disease, and further research will be needed to investigate this. It is possible that reduced oral hygiene, and therefore P. gingivalis infection, could be a consequence of later-stage Alzheimer's, rather than a cause.

"Other studies have suggested that infections, including oral infections, could be linked to Alzheimer's, and there is ongoing research in this area."

He said it will be important for future studies to consider looking back at dental records, to match these with oral hygiene during a person's life. 

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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