Remembering to brush your teeth might help keep your memory sharp into old age.
Evidence is growing that gum disease fuels Alzheimer’s – and that regular brushing lowers the risk of the memory-robbing disease.
It is thought that the bugs that make gums bleed also affect brain health.
The latest study found that Alzheimer’s patients declined six times more quickly if their gums were diseased.
The British finding doesn’t just suggest that good dental hygiene could keep the memory-robbing disease at bay – it also means that treatments for gum disease might help tackle Alzheimer’s.
This is important because despite hundreds of expensive drug trials, there are few pills for the disease, and those that are available are of limited benefit.
The researchers, from King’s College London and the University of Southampton, tracked the health of 59 men and women, all of whom had mild or moderate Alzheimer’s, for six months.
The volunteers underwent dental examinations at the start of the study, and cognitive and blood tests at the start and end.
Twenty had gum disease, or periodontitis, and their memory declined much more rapidly, the journal PLOS ONE reports.
The blood test results provide clues as to why. In those with gum disease, the blood contained more chemicals that cause inflammation that is thought to damage the brain.
It is thought that the bacteria that damage the gums activate the immune system, triggering the release of the chemicals.
It is also possible that people who are extra-vulnerable to gum disease are also more susceptible to memory problems.
In addition, as dementia takes hold patients may simply find it more difficult to take care of their teeth.
But with evidence for the first theory mounting up, the researchers say it is worth looking at whether tackling gum disease could also help treat Alzheimer’s.
Mark Ide, of the Dental Institute at King’s College London, said gum disease is rife in Britain, affecting 80 per cent of those aged 55 and above.
Plus around half of people aged 65-plus have lost more than ten teeth – a sign of severe gum disease.
Dr Ide said: ‘A number of studies have shown that having few teeth, possibly as a consequence of earlier gum disease, is associated with a greater risk of developing dementia.
‘We also believe, based on various research findings, that the presence of teeth with active gum disease results in higher body-wide levels of the sorts of inflammatory molecules which have also been associated with an elevated risk of other outcomes such as cognitive decline.
‘Research has suggested that effective gum treatment can reduce the levels of these molecules closer to that seen in a healthy state.’
Dr Ide said that treating gum disease in those who already have Alzheimer’s might slow their decline.
And regular tooth-brushing may help prevent the disease in those still healthy. However, there is no point in being half-hearted about it.
He said: ‘Most people are rubbish at brushing their teeth. They do it twice a day but they do it badly.
‘We think it is better to do it really thoroughly once a day, having been instructed how by your dentist, than do it badly once a day.’
an expert in old age psychiatry at the University of Southampton, added: ‘These are very interesting results which build on previous work we have done that shows that chronic inflammatory conditions have a detrimental effect on disease progression in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
‘Our study was small and lasted for six months so further trials need to be carried out to develop these results.
‘However, if there is a direct relationship between periodontitis and cognitive decline, as this current study suggests, then treatment of gum disease might be a possible treatment option for Alzheimer’s.’
Previous research found that those who brushed their teeth less than once a day are 65 per cent more likely to develop dementia than those who brushed three times a day.
In addition pensioners who had lost lots of teeth were more likely to suffer memory problems than others.
Dr Ide is now running a study to see if treating gum disease slows the rate of decline.