In a study published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, researchers have uncovered a potential link between oral health and brain health. The study, led by Dr. Satoshi Yamaguchi from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, reveals that gum disease and tooth loss may be associated with brain shrinkage in the hippocampus, a region crucial for memory and linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
While the study does not establish a direct causal relationship between gum disease, tooth loss, and Alzheimer’s disease, it sheds light on a compelling association that could have significant implications for public health.
The Link Between Dental Health and Brain Atrophy
The research involved 172 participants, with an average age of 67, who initially did not exhibit memory problems. Dental exams, memory tests, and brain scans were conducted at the beginning of the study and repeated four years later. The findings suggest a correlation between the number of teeth, gum disease, and changes in the left hippocampus of the brain.
According to Dr. Yamaguchi, “Tooth loss and gum disease…are very common, so evaluating a potential link with dementia is incredibly important.” The study reveals that mild gum disease, characterized by probing depths of three to four millimeters, and severe gum disease, involving probing depths of five to six millimeters and more bone loss, can impact the brain differently.
Impact on Brain Aging
For participants with mild gum disease, having fewer teeth correlated with a faster rate of brain shrinkage in the left hippocampus. Conversely, individuals with severe gum disease experienced a faster rate of brain shrinkage with a higher number of teeth. Adjusting for age, researchers found that the increase in the rate of brain shrinkage due to one less tooth was equivalent to nearly one year of brain aging for those with mild gum disease. In contrast, for those with severe gum disease, the increase in brain shrinkage due to one more tooth equated to 1.3 years of brain aging.
Implications and Future Directions
Dr. Yamaguchi emphasized the importance of preserving dental health, stating, “The findings suggest that retaining teeth with severe gum disease is associated with brain atrophy.” The study underscores the significance of controlling gum disease progression through regular dental visits. Dr. Yamaguchi also suggested that teeth with severe gum disease may need to be extracted and replaced with appropriate prosthetic devices.
While the study provides valuable insights, Dr. Yamaguchi highlighted the need for future studies with larger groups of people to validate the findings. Additionally, the study’s limitation, conducted in one region of Japan, suggests that further research is required to determine the generalizability of the results to other locations.