Gum Disease and Alzheimer’s: Examining A Potential Link

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease and the most common cause of dementia, but what’s the connection to oral health?

A recent study published in the journal Science Advances revealed a potential link between P. gingivalis, the bacteria associated with periodontal disease (commonly known as gum disease), and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers found Gingipains – the toxic enzyme secreted by P. gingivalis – in 96 percent of the brain tissue samples examined, with higher levels in those with the pathology and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the study noted.

“We’re constantly learning about oral health’s role in steering our greater physical and cognitive condition,” said Dr. Matthew Parr, D.D.S. and owner of Surf City Dental. “The science behind this latest finding only reinforces the fact that our mouth truly is the gateway to total wellness.”

These new details follow a pattern that scientists have been watching for some time now. Previous studies show a correlation between chronic gum inflammation – a leading cause of tooth loss – and an increase in markers of inflammation throughout the body, as well as a decline in cognitive ability. Scientists hypothesize two mechanisms linking periodontitis and Alzheimer’s.

  • The first unleashes pro-inflammatory cytokines (a small protein released by cells) that damage neurons in the brain.
  • The second is an invasion of the brain by microorganisms present in the dental plaque biofilm.

“Our entire team has been trained to look for anomalies and signs beyond the obvious issues with teeth,” Dr. Parr said. “We do it for this very reason, knowing that many times the greatest risks often aren’t in the foreground, but rather require thorough examination and attention to small details.”

While research is ongoing and still inconclusive, the medical community agrees unanimously that increasing age is the most important known factor for Alzheimer’s. The number of people with the disease doubles every five years after age 65. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), about one third of people 85 and older may have Alzheimer’s. Other important factors include a combination of genetics, lifestyle, and environment.

Some schools of thought among the research community liken the link between periodontitis and Alzheimer’s in the elderly to a “chicken or the egg” scenario. They conclude it’s still unclear whether gum disease causes Alzheimer’s or the other way around. Even so, experts are no less urgent in their call to “prevent progression of periodontal disease and promote healthcare services at a national level.”

“Our goal is to provide the best evidence-based care to each of our patients,” Dr. Parr said. “With our senior community, we’re especially sensitive to complex age-related issues. Our role is to work in tandem with family members and medical providers to make sure these patients receive the holistic care most likely to keep them well for the long haul.”