How oral health affects body and brain

Lesley Dobson / 01 April 2016

As a new study links oral decay with cognitive decline, we look at several conditions that also appear to be linked to the health of your mouth.



When did you last see your dentist? If it’s been a while, booking an appointment now might be a healthy decision.

Related: How a dental hygienist can help your health

Theories about links between poor oral health (healthy gums and mouth), and a healthy body have been around for a while. In some cases they are clearly backed up by science, while in others more research needs to be carried out.

A study just carried out at Duke University’s School of Nursing in the USA, looked at past studies to see whether oral health affects the rate of cognitive decline. In other words, whether having an unhealthy mouth means our mental abilities become worse more quickly.

“Clinical evidence suggests that the frequency of oral health problems increases significantly in cognitively impaired older people, particularly those with dementia,” said Dr Bei Wu, PhD, of Duke University’s School of Nursing, who was involved in the study

Some of the studies the scientists examined in this research did find that poor oral health was associated with a greater risk of a decline in mental abilities. There wasn’t enough evidence though, to show a clear link between an unhealthy mouth, teeth and gums and a reduction in mental function.

People who are living with a decline in their mental abilities may find it difficult to clean their teeth properly, or at all. In these cases it is difficult to know which problem came first. Further research may give us the full answer.

However, there are other health conditions where the connection between gum disease and physical health is becoming much clearer, through scientific research. Rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and coronary heart disease are some of the conditions where the links between oral health and the condition are currently being studied.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

“There have been various studies over the years which have explored the link between inflammatory arthritis and oral health. These studies have demonstrated that gum disease is more common, and often more severe, for the 400,000 people living with rheumatoid arthritis in the UK, and some research suggests gum disease may in fact trigger the condition,” explains Katherine Free, research liaison and communications manager for Arthritis Research UK.

Arthritis Research UK are currently funding research to determine whether mouth and gut bacteria can ‘trick’ the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues, causing rheumatoid arthritis”. Understanding this relationship could lead to the development of new diagnostic tests and targeted therapies for this painful and debilitating condition.”

Related: Learn more about rheumatoid arthritis

Diabetes

Having diabetes is known to increase your risk of severe gum disease – known as periodontitis. And it can work the other way around as well. There is evidence that suggests that if you have severe gum disease that isn’t being treated, this can increase your levels of HbA1c.

In fact, having gum disease that isn’t being treated is strongly associated with increased glucose levels even in people who don’t have diabetes.

Checking your HbA1c shows how much glucose you have in your red blood cells. And this  can show your doctor what your blood sugar levels have been on average, for the last eight to twelve weeks..

If you have diabetes your doctor will normally carry out the HbA1c test at least once a year, to check the amount of glucose in your red blood cells. According to Diabetes UK for most adults the target level is below 48mmol/mol. And if you have diabetes it is also important to have a regular gum disease assessment.

Related: What you need to know about type 2 diabetes

Heart disease and heart attacks

The British Heart Foundation is funding research into the connection between oral health and heart disease. This is being carried out now, at the University of Bristol, and still has several years to go before it is finished.

Professor Sarah Jane George, of the University of Bristol is studying how the bacteria that cause gum disease may be linked to coronary disease and heart attacks. Research has shown that people with gum disease are more prone to coronary heart disease, but it isn’t yet clear whether gum disease causes coronary heart disease, or makes an existing condition worse.

In this research Professor Jane George and her team are looking at whether specific oral bacteria activate something called the Wnt signaling pathway in endothelial cells (the thin layer of cells that line the inside of our blood vessels), immune cells and blocked arteries. This research could show whether blocking this pathway could reduce atherosclerosis – when plaque builds up in your arteries - in people with gum disease.

Related: Read our guide to cardiovascular disease

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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