By Pamela D. Wilson, The Care Navigator, CSA, CG, MS, BS/BA
I don’t know many people who look forward to going to the dentist. Until recently I hadn’t had a cavity or dental work other than cleanings for over 15 years. Having multiple cavities filled as a child was an early and good lesson teaching me to brush and floss my teeth daily to avoid preventable pain related to necessary dental work. .
At a recent cleaning, the dentist identified a small cavity. Having to return to fill the cavity was an experience I dreaded for weeks in advance of the appointment. Prior memories of a bad dental experience, the dentist hit my nerve with the needle that was supposed to inject Novocain to numb my jaw, remain with me today. My ability to recall this event is evidence that I take good care of my teeth and see my dentist every 6 months for a check-up and thorough cleaning.
What if anything, does the health of our teeth have to do with memory and the quality of our overall health? More that we’d imagine or even like to admit especially when we learn the results of not caring for our teeth.
Our teeth are an undervalued asset. We use them to chew, to eat and to flash a smile. Once we lose teeth due to infection or cavities, we can’t get them back except in the form of implants or dentures. The number of real teeth in our mouth has a direct correlation with the likelihood of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Good dental hygiene is a preventative measure against many diseases including heart disease, arteriosclerosis and stroke which are risk factors for memory loss. Dental care is especially important for persons diagnosed with diabetes who have difficulty healing from infections. Individuals who smoke experience greater issues with dental care and gum disease. Pneumonia, common in nursing home residents, results from aspirating and swallowing bacteria from infected teeth or gums that occur due to a lack of teeth brushing.
A study of residents of Leisure World in Southern California indicates a significant correlation between poor dental care and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.1 Findings from the study indicate that significant tooth loss meaning, “loss of 50% or more of teeth” between the ages of 35 and 50, failure to brush teeth daily and missing semi and annual dental appointments result in a greater risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies confirm that poor dental care results in mental decline. Poor dental care (not brushing teeth daily), results in gingivitis and inflammation that translates to infection elsewhere in the body. Research confirms the spread of bacteria to the brain likely occurs through the trigeminal nerve which controls our ability to chew. It’s also the nerve that controls sensation in our head and face.
The ability and frequency of chewing is beneficial to our brains. Research confirms the absence of the activity of chewing, because of missing teeth, results in reduced levels of acetylcholine that supports proper functioning of our brains.2 Wearing dentures or the insertion of implants to support chewing may have a beneficial effect related to dementia risk by supporting appropriate levels of acetylcholine in the brain.1
Acetylcholine is a word most of us are unfamiliar with unless we work with individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By definition, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter supporting communication between nerves in the brain that support memory, learning and mood. Acetylcholine is important to our daily functioning and long term wellbeing. Acetylcholine levels are lower in persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and result in memory loss, inability to learn new tasks and disruptive mood and behaviors.
While most of us aren’t familiar with this research or we find the medical terms, technical aspects and intricacies of dental infection more information than we want to know, most of us have an interest in retaining our memory, mood and ability to learn new information. Most of us have at least a small interest in remaining healthy.
Good dental care by way of daily tooth brushing, avoiding infections and retaining the ability to chew are actions that all of us can take, if we choose. While we may find brushing our teeth a hassle, it’s better than the alternative of losing teeth. It’s also a small daily preventative effort taking less than a few minutes a day to ensure we are less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another chronic disease that will affect us on a daily basis for the rest of our lives. .
It’s often said that what we don’t know can result in harm especially if what we don’t know affects our health and well being. In the case of dental care, you now know the importance of tooth brushing. Making the effort to take care of your teeth and your memory is up to you.
The Care Navigator serves caregiving families and individuals in Metro Denver and the Colorado Front Range. Through The Caring Generation®, a one of a kind online community of support for family and professional caregivers, Pamela D. Wilson offers an extensive library of expert interviews, educational podcasts, videos, articles and a forum to allow caregivers to connect with others in similar situations.
1 Paganini-Hill, A. et al. Dentition, Dental Health Habits, and Dementia: The Leisure World Cohort Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 60:1556-1563, 2012.
2 Okamoto, N. et al. Relationship of Tooth Loss to Mind Memory Impairment and Cognitive Impairment: Findings from the Fujiwara-Kyo Study. Behavioral and Brain Functions 2010: 6:77.
©2013 Pamela D. Wilson, All Rights Reserved