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Cognitive function and dental health
Exploring the link between Alzheimer's disease and tooth decay


July 2016

The International and American Associations for Dental Research recently published an article linking dental health to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have studied the link between dental health and conditions like diabetes, pulmonary disease, pregnancy complications, heart disease and stroke for years, but this is the first time they’ve seen a possible link to brain functions.

According to the report, investigation on animals showed that masticatory dysfunction caused by the extraction of molars or soft-diet feeding induces changes in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. This, in turn, can lead to some learning and memory loss. In humans, neuroimaging studies have shown that the act of chewing causes increased blood flow to our brains and that the regions of the brain linked to our memory and learning processes are therefore activated.

Dr. Russ Dunkel of Dunkel & Kraklow Quality Dentistry in Greenfield, an adjunct professor at the MATC School of Health Sciences and former clinical instructor at the Marquette University School of Dentistry, says the link between dental health and dementia may also be related to systemic inflammation. "Periodontal disease, for example, provides a definite inflammatory response, and this can contribute to vascular pathology, with the potential to impact brain function," he adds.

Before you run out and buy a big box of chewing gum, Dunkel warns that there is a bit of a chicken and the egg syndrome happening here. "It is difficult to know if the tooth loss and pathology lead to the dementia or vice versa," he says. "For example, patients with dementia usually have poor dental hygiene, which leads to tooth decay, and periodontal disease, which can thereby make the dementia worse. However, on the reverse side, if the individual has significant dental infection, this can lead to systemic inflammatory responses that can impact the brain. There is some interesting research being conducted to identify the mechanism by which periodontal inflammation exacerbates cognitive and neurological pathologies linked with Alzheimer’s and dementia."

Regardless of what starts the process, there is some good news. It appears some of the lost cognitive function can be recovered with better dental health. "Removing the infectious inflammatory processes via dental treatment can lead to reducing the systemic inflammatory responses, thereby reducing the vascular pathology and improving blood flow to the brain," says Dunkel. Simply put, better dental health leads to better blood flow to the brain, which means better cognitive function. And who doesn’t want that? m



This story ran in the July 2016 issue of: