Poor Oral Health and Brain Function

***UPDATED: April 28, 2014*** Further research suggests a connection between oral health and cognitive ability, reports Dental Tribune, an online dental newspaper.  The new study, recently presented at the Annual Meeting and Exhibition of the American Association of Dental Research, found that a decline of cognitive function in people over the age of 79 is related to tactile and taster perceptions, and that participants with more natural teeth performed better in oral perception tests. The study included over 950 octogenarians who were asked to identify the shape of six different test objects with their tongue and palate.  Taste perception was also evaluated using sweet, sour, salty, and bitter water solutions.  Those with the greatest number of natural teeth performed the best, while female participants scored lower than their male counterparts.

For years scientists have been linking oral health to a number of health conditions, including dementia, heart disease, and diabetes.  There are still quite a few unknowns though as researchers continue to discover just what the connection is and how it works.  Through the continual exploration of this very intriguing concept, new research is being published often, further tying oral health and overall wellness.  For example, a new study published in the December issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association has revealed a new link between oral health and brain function, as described in a recent US News article.  The report claims that tooth loss and bleeding gums, both symptoms of oral disease, might be a sign of a decline in thinking skills among middle-aged individuals.

The research team, led by Gary Slade, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, stated that they were interested in the relationship between poor dental health and cognitive function.  The authors analyzed data that had been gathered between 1996 and 1998, including tests of memory and thinking skills in addition to tooth and gum examinations.  The data was collected from almost 6,000 men and women aged between 45 and 64.  Approximately 13% of participants had no natural teeth, while 20% had less than 20 remaining.  More than 12% had advanced oral disease, including serious bleeding issues and deep gum pockets.  Several memory and thinking tests were administered, including word recall, word fluency, and skill with numbers, and in every example, those with no teeth scored lower than those who still had some.  Similarly, researchers found that those who had few teeth and serious gum bleeding were associated with lower scores than those who had healthy gums and teeth.  The authors were able to conclude that for every tooth a participant had lost, cognitive function decreased a bit.  Once this was established, the next logical question became, which condition developed first?

There are several theories being discussed according to Slade.  One such belief is that poor dental health is a reflection of poor diet, and therefore a lack of so-called “brain foods” that are rich in antioxidants and credited with improving brain function.  Or, poor oral health could cause individuals to avoid certain foods all together, many of which could be those known to boost brain power.  Yet another theory is that inflammation is the root of the problem, causing the gum disease and problems with the circulatory system, ultimately effecting cognition.  More research is needed to continue the search for an explanation of the connection, but regardless of understanding how it works, it’s important to note the link.  Using poor dental health as a marker for poor overall health is not out of the question as the two have been found to coincide in dozens are scientific studies.

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