Many people lose teeth as they get older, and many people lose some
memory capacity as they get older. Could these two things be related?
To find out, researchers are exploring the possible links between oral
health and memory loss.
Richard Crout researches gum disease at
the West Virginia University School of Dentistry. He says in recent
years, oral health researchers have found that tooth and gum disease
have links to many other health problems - from heart disease to
premature birth and pregnancy complications. Now they think there might
be links to memory loss.
Crout says many dentists see older
patients with memory loss who come into their offices with teeth that
are a mess. Often that's because these patients have forgotten to do
the basics of self care.
"Now we know that if somebody has
dementia or they are demented or they have Alzheimer's, that they are
going [to] potentially forget to brush or floss their teeth," he says.
"That would not be new, but what surprised us was the linkage between
mild to moderate memory loss and oral disease."
Crout and his
students examined data from the NHANES [National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey], a national survey of Americans, which asked them
about their health. Subjects in the study also had dental exams. And
the data showed that people who reported tooth and gum disease had
lower scores on tests that measured memory and cognition.
hypothesis that would link oral disease and memory loss relies on new
evidence about how tissue inflammation affects the brain.
hypothesis is that there are inflammatory byproducts that come from the
infection that exists in our mouths, particularly with the more
advanced form of gum disease," Crout says. "And these byproducts can
then travel to areas of the brain that have been noted to be an area of
concern for those patients with memory loss."
But he says it can
be hard to determine which problem comes first - memory loss or
diseases in the mouth. To tease out that relationship, Crout says he
will need to study patients over a long period of time, watching for
both periodontal disease and memory loss. He recently received a large
grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to pursue this line
"For certain sets of patients, we would have
their baseline inflammatory markers in the blood. In other words, we
would know the levels of these different levels of toxins," Crout says.
"We then have their dental examinations and their periodontal
examinations done, and we then have their memory tests done. So what we
would do is that we would then perform an intervention."
intervention could be, for example, to give some patients an electric
toothbrush that helps them care for their mouths better, while other
patients just get a regular toothbrush. Then Crout would watch over
time and measure what is happening to these patients' ability to
He says it might take many years before he gets an answer to his hypothesis.
Abstract of earlier study by Richard Crout