If you have this dental issue, you may develop severe dementia later

Mankind has always been fascinated with predicting or seeing the future, and for good reason. Who wouldn’t want to know how they’ll be doing five, ten, or even twenty years down the line? 

There are tons of supposed ways to see into the future, like palm readings or tarot cards, but those strategies are predicated on chance and superstition. 

If you’re looking for a more scientific way to peek into your future, a new study has found that it could be as simple as taking a look at your mouth. A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota says that gum disease may be associated with both mild cognitive impairment and full-blown dementia decades down the line.

Essentially, if your mouth is in rough shape today, this new research suggests you’re putting yourself at a much higher risk of dementia and or cognition problems up to 20 years later. Especially severe gum disease that has progressed to the point of irreversibility and tooth loss appears to correlate the strongest with subsequent brain problems. So, the worse the gum disease, the higher one’s chances of running into cognitive trouble later on.

There are already more than enough motivators to look after our teeth by brushing twice a day and flossing regularly, but this study is adding yet another reason to keep a toothbrush handy. Dementia, most often associated with Alzheimer’s, is a uniquely nasty disease because it robs people of perhaps their most cherished commodity: their thoughts. 

“We looked at people’s dental health over a 20-year period and found that people with the most severe gum disease at the start of our study had about twice the risk for mild cognitive impairment or dementia by the end,” explains study author Ryan T. Demmer, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in a release. “However, the good news was that people with minimal tooth loss and mild gum disease were no more likely to develop thinking problems or dementia than people with no dental problems.”

This research project was a long-term initiative that took place over an average of 18 years. A total of 8,275 dementia-free older adults, with an average age of 63 at the beginning of the study, took part in this project. Initially, each participant was tested for any early signs of cognitive decline and or dementia. After that, everyone underwent a dental exam that focused specifically on their gums (gum probing depth, recession, bleeding tendencies).

The state of each person’s gums at the beginning of the tracking period was important, so participants were grouped into categories depending on the health of their mouths. To start, 22% of participants had no gum disease at all, 12% had severe gum inflammation, 8% had some tooth loss, 12% had mild gum disease, and 12% had disease within their molars. Meanwhile, 11% had severe tooth loss, 6% had full-blown severe gum disease, and 20% didn’t have any of their original teeth.

After roughly 18 years, 4,559 of the participants had stuck with the project and were available for a final examination. Among that group, 19% (1,569) ended up developing dementia during the tracking period. 

Examining the percentage of dementia diagnoses among specific participant groups, however, revealed a pattern. Only 14% (264 out of 1,826) of participants with healthy gums and all their teeth ended up developing dementia, while 18% (623 out of 3,470) of those with mild gum disease were diagnosed with dementia. Among the severe gum disease group, 22% (306 out of 1,368) experienced dementia. Finally, 23% (376 out of 1,611) of participants with no teeth at the beginning of the study developed dementia over the near two-decade tracking period.

Judging from these percentages, it’s clear that people with particularly troublesome gum disease and widespread tooth loss develop dementia in greater numbers than individuals with generally strong oral health. According to the research team’s calculations, participants who had no teeth were twice as likely to develop either mild cognitive impairment or dementia in comparison to people with a healthy mouth. Those with just moderate to severe gum disease had a 20% higher risk of cognitive impairment or dementia. 

The study’s authors were sure to account for other factors that could conceivably influence a person’s risk of dementia, such as smoking habits or cholesterol levels, while formulating these percentages. Still, researchers made it a point to emphasize that their findings only confirm an association between gum disease and brain problems later in life, and thus can not prove causation.

“Good dental hygiene is a proven way to keep healthy teeth and gums throughout your lifetime. Our study does not prove that an unhealthy mouth causes dementia and only shows an association. Further study is needed to demonstrate the link between microbes in your mouth and dementia, and to understand if treatment for gum disease can prevent dementia,” Demmer concludes.

More research on this topic is almost certainly coming in the near future, but in the meantime the message is clear. Keeping your mouth clean today bodes well for your mind tomorrow.

The full study can be found here, published in Neurology.