A study published this April is the first to investigate whether or not poor oral health can be linked to cognitive decline in older adults.
The results of this study were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Researchers have long recognized that older adults — especially older adults with dementia — are more likely to have oral health problems than younger adults. The research team, led by Bei Wu, Ph.D., wanted to examine whether or not these oral diseases could be linked to cognitive decline.
“Clinical evidence suggests that the frequency of oral health problems increases significantly in cognitively impaired older people, particularly those with dementia,” explained Wu, a professor at Duke University’s School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina. “In addition, many of the factors associated with poor oral health — such as poor nutrition and systemic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease — are also associated with poor cognitive function.”
To determine whether or not oral health is directly (or indirectly) linked to cognitive decline, Wu and colleagues analyzed both cross-sectional (data collected at one specific point in time) and longitudinal (data collected over an extended time period) studies published between 1993 and 2013.
The researchers encountered many studies that found that oral health measures — for instance, the number of teeth, the number of cavities and the presence of gum disease — were associated with cognitive decline or dementia. Other studies, meanwhile, were less conclusive and couldn’t find any correlation between oral and cognitive health.
“There is not enough evidence to date to conclude that a causal association exists between cognitive function and oral health,” said Wu. “For future research, we recommend that investigators gather data from larger and more population representative samples, use standard cognitive assessments and oral health measures, and use more sophisticated data analyses.”
What does this mean?
Currently, researchers have no idea whether or not poor oral health is directly or indirectly linked to cognitive decline. It’s possible that older individuals are more likely to have difficulties with oral health because they’ve been alive longer, or perhaps people with dementia are less thorough when it comes to taking care of their oral hygiene. It’s also possible that the inflammation associated with gum disease causes the body to release more inflammatory chemicals than usual, a condition associated with mental illness.
Scientists will continue to search for the answer, whatever it may be. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to visit the dentist regularly.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.