What if someone told you that caring for your teeth as you age is just as important as caring for your heart? Would you believe them? You should, according to researchers at the University of Central Lancashire. The U.K. research team has discovered that bacteria linked to gum disease seems to be thriving in the brains of patients with dementia.
The bacteria, called Porphyromonas gingivalis (PG), is usually one of the first clues that you could have a case of periodontal disease. It’s found in your mouth where it enters the blood stream. Every time you chew, brush your teeth, or eat something, PG can spread throughout your body, eventually reaching the brain. There’s one sure-fire way for PG to get out of your oral cavities and into your bloodstream and that’s through invasive surgery. Every time you have dental surgery, you up your risk for getting a new colony of PG living in your brain.
And it’s not so much the bacteria that seems to do harm, but the fact that your body triggers immune responses to try to deal with this surge of bacteria. Signals are sent out and chemicals are released. The more PG in your body, the more chemicals you end up with. It is these bacteria-fighting chemicals that ironically harm the brain. Not only do they kill off PG but they also mistakenly kill off neurons.
The researchers were able to prove this negative interaction by studying brain samples. The samples were taken from 10 people who had dementia and who had agreed to participate in the “Brains for Dementia Research” program. These 10 samples were subsequently compared with 10 brain samples from patients who did not have dementia. After analyzing the samples, the researchers discovered that PG was alive and well in the brains of those affected by Alzheimer’s.
If PG starts to spread through your brain, you could be in for some nasty symptoms like memory loss and confusion. Of course it’s likely not just PG that could threaten your cognitive abilities but other bacteria and viruses too.
Researchers are working on exploring this link between bacteria and Alzheimer’s. At this point, scientists are not sure whether PG plays a direct role in triggering Alzheimer’s or whether Alzheimer’s was already present and the bacteria made the condition worse. More research needs to be done to determine exactly what role PG plays.
There may come a day when PG could be used as a marker for a blood test. This blood test could be used to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s in patients who are at a high risk for the disease.
In the meantime, it’s a good idea to continue to practice good dental hygiene habits. Don’t just settle for brushing your teeth—get some floss between your teeth as well. Many seniors have what dentists call “food traps.” These are small spaces that appear between teeth near the gum line. Bacteria are especially fond of these small, moist spaces that a toothbrush often can’t access properly. Regular trips to the dentist to remove plaque are also essential.