Is avoiding dementia as simple as brushing your teeth?

woman brushing her teeth

It’s a sad fact that people with dementia often have poor oral hygiene and dental health.

Until now, it’s largely been assumed that the decrease in cognitive ability and medication were to blame, but now research has found that people may be at risk of dementia because of poor oral health, not the other way around.

But it’s not one or the other. The research describes it as ‘bidirectional’ or a comorbidity.

So while people with poor oral health may develop cognitive decline and dementia, people with dementia are often unable to maintain proper oral health.

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According to Dementia Australia, people with dementia are susceptible to poor dental health for a range of reasons including taking medication that reduces the production of saliva, taking medication with a sugar base that can damage teeth in the long term, a change in diet and reduced dental care.

However, a recent study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society suggests a link between gum disease and tooth loss and later cognitive decline and dementia.

The study focused on periodontitis, otherwise known as gum disease.

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Periodontitis is a bacterial gum infection that damages the soft tissue and can spread to the bone that supports your teeth. It can lead to loose teeth or tooth loss.

Symptoms of periodontitis include swollen, tender or puffy gums, bleeding, bad breath, loose teeth and painful chewing.

The study analysed data from more than 20 longitudinal studies – health studies taken over a long time – and examined the association between periodontitis and cognitive decline.

According to MedicalNewsToday, the analysis found that gum disease was associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Further analysis found tooth loss was also linked to cognitive decline and dementia.

Partial tooth loss, involving the loss of a few but not all teeth, was associated with cognitive decline. In contrast, complete tooth loss, but not partial tooth loss, was linked to an increased risk of dementia.

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However, the study noted that poor dental health and dementia shared several risk factors, including diabetes, low education levels and socioeconomic status, so a direct link was hard to pin down.

Commenting on the study, Dr Murray Thomson, a professor of dentistry at the University of Otago, said that while the results were “not surprising”, the likelihood of cognitive decline and dementia causing poor oral health was stronger than the possibility of poor dental health causing dementia.

“I would expect any investigation at any age in adulthood to show an association between gum disease and cognitive function,” he said.

“The key issue is that there is no good evidence that gum disease causes poor cognitive function, but there is very good evidence that people with poorer cognitive function have more gum disease.”

It’s estimated that almost 400,000 Australians have dementia, a number that is predicted to double by 2058.

Everyone seems to have a horror story about going to the dentist. Has dental care affected your health? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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  1. Going to the dentist to help with oral health is a must. Unfortunately, it is so expensive even if you have private health extras. It has been proven, with heart health the link between oral health so why is the dentist not on Medicare. The mouth is part of our body and needs to be taken care of. Governments need to recognize prevention is much less expensive than trying to cure the ailment.

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