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Is Good Dental Health Tied to Better Brain Health?

written by Skye Sherman - Feb 5, 2024
medically reviewed by Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - Apr 17, 2024

Photo Credit: by Karolina Grabowska,
Photo Credit: by Karolina Grabowska,

Sure, your teeth are located in your head close to your brain, but few people would guess how dental hygiene is linked to brain health. They seem like two different unrelated systems, but the reality is that good dental health is tied to better brain health.

Want a sobering statistic to illustrate how important mouth and tooth health is to brain health and overall quality of life while aging?

Dr. Bicuspid reports, “for people with mild gum disease, the increase in the rate of brain shrinkage due to one less tooth was equivalent to nearly one year of brain aging. Conversely, for people with severe gum disease, the increase in brain shrinkage due to one more missing tooth was equivalent to 1.3 years of brain aging.”

While old people losing teeth may seem normal and routine to some, if you think of it as losing one year of brain activity for every tooth lost, it becomes a lot more serious! If you think of it like your brain shrinking every time you lose a tooth due to gum disease, you might start taking more efforts to protect your brain via your mouth.

In this article, we’ll examine how good dental health is tied to brain health so you can understand how your oral hygiene affects cognitive functioning and why brushing your teeth may help you think better.

Can brushing your teeth improve your cognitive functioning?

If you want to improve your cognitive functioning, start paying more attention to your daily habit of brushing and flossing.

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation reports, “gum disease and tooth loss were associated with shrinking in the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for memory and learning and one of the first areas to be damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. … gum disease is tied to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”

Over the years, other studies have found that people with the most severe gum disease have about twice the risk of developing dementia or mild cognitive impairment, or other brain disorders that can progress into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease over time. On the contrary, those with minimal tooth loss and mild gum disease were no more likely to develop memory problems or dementia than those with healthy teeth.

As you can see, the important factor here is the severity of the gum disease. Good dental hygiene is important not only so you can put your best face forward, but also so you can keep your brain in tip-top shape.

Those suffering from Alzheimer’s may be prescribed drugs like Exelon, Namenda, or Rexulti to assist with their prognosis.

Your brain health can affect your oral health, too

This is a major health crisis for aging adults. ScienceAlert states, “severe periodontal disease, characterized by bleeding/swollen gums and damage to the supporting tissue of the teeth, impacts about 19 percent of the global adult population. For context, this means more than 1 billion people could be at risk of early cognitive decline due to the state of their mouths.”

What’s more, according to ScienceAlert, “the nature of the relationship between the mouth and brain appears to be bidirectional, meaning that cognitive decline tends to lead to poorer oral health habits as well.”

In other words, neurological disorders can make it difficult for people to properly care for their teeth. Those suffering cognitive decline may forget to brush, or struggle to keep up with routine trips to the dentist, meaning their cognitive decline leads to a fall in their dental standards, which only exacerbates their condition.

It’s a vicious cycle: As your oral health declines, so does your cognitive functioning, and as your brain health declines, your dental hygiene tends to slip along with it.

Inflammation in your mouth can affect your whole body

Of course, it’s not necessarily true that gum disease directly causes Alzheimer’s, or that everyone with Alzheimer’s has gum disease or no one with disease-free gums will get Alzheimer’s. Still, inflammation in the mouth is bound to cause a host of issues.

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation continues, “These studies show only an association between dental health and brain health and cannot prove cause and effect. But other studies have found that people who die with Alzheimer’s disease are more likely to have bacteria linked to gum disease present in their brain than those who didn’t have Alzheimer’s disease.”

One potential reason for this is that it is possible that bacteria in the mouth can travel to the brain, causing damage.

Harvard Health explains, “a recent study says that the bacteria that cause gingivitis also may be connected to Alzheimer’s disease … Scientists have previously found that this species of bacteria, called Porphyromonas gingivalis, can move from the mouth to the brain. Once in the brain, the bacteria release enzymes called gingipains that can destroy nerve cells, which in turn can lead to memory loss and eventually Alzheimer's.”

What’s more, gum disease is linked to inflammation throughout the entire body, affecting every system and potentially damaging blood vessels throughout the body, including in the brain.

Higher levels of inflammation are often linked to various chronic diseases, including those associated with aging, like Alzheimer’s. According to The Washington Post, “Poor oral hygiene is associated with an increased risk for myriad health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and early death.”

Poor oral health can even increase your risk of heart disease Not brushing teeth at night may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease | Scientific Reports

Doesn’t it seem simpler to keep your teeth clean than deal with all of these issues?

What’s next? What to know about dental and mental health

Aside from a renewed zeal for brushing and flossing, there are important steps you can take or keep in mind now that you know the link between your dental and mental health.

Harvard Health reports, “The next research step is to see if a drug can block these harmful bacterial enzymes and possibly stop Alzheimer’s from developing or at least slow its progression. Until then, you can do your part by fighting gingivitis with strong oral health habits, including daily flossing and brushing twice a day and staying current on regular dental check-ups.”

The moral of the story is that gum disease is linked to faster rates of cognitive decline, and it’s preventable, or what is considered a modifiable risk factor. All you have to do to decrease your chances of brain decline is develop good dental hygiene habits that keep your teeth and gums free and clear.

If brushing and flossing on a daily basis can protect your brain and give you better quality of life for more years, why wouldn’t you do so?



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