Early Study Finding’s Show Healthy Teeth And Gums Linked To Better Brain Health

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For some people, they are unfortunately genetically predisposed to getting cavities and other dental problems. And the early results from a new study show that because of this, they are also more likely to develop structural changes in the brain that are associated with cognitive decline.

Former research has already linked oral health issues, such as gum disease, poor brushing habits, missing teeth, and plaque buildup to a heightened risk of stroke, as well as to other risk factors for heart disease issues, such as high blood pressure.

Neurology researcher at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven in Connecticut, and lead author of the new study, Cyprien Rivier, MD, explained in a statement, “What hasn’t been clear is whether poor oral health affected brain health, meaning the functional status of a person’s brain, which we are now able to understand better using neuroimaging tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.”

He added, “Studying oral health is especially important because poor oral health happens frequently and is an easily modifiable risk factor. Everyone can effectively improve their oral health with minimal time and financial investment.”

Structural Damage in Brain Tied to Poor Oral Health Genes

In the new study, researchers looked at data from around 40,000 adults that had no history of stroke that were part of the ongoing medical study, UK Biobank. The participants were screened for over 100 genetic variants that are known to predispose people to cavities, missing teeth, and dentures later in life. They also had MRI scans to look for structural damage, as well as white matter hyperintensities, which are said to be associated with a higher risk of stroke, and also impairments in balance, mobility, and memory.

According to the early study findings that were presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2023 held in Dallas, those that were genetically prone to missing teeth, cavities, or needing dentures also had higher amounts of white matter hyperintensities and structural damage seen in the MRI scans.

Dr. Rivier said, “Poor oral health may cause declines in brain health, so we need to be extra careful with our oral hygiene, because it has implications far beyond the mouth. However, this study is preliminary, and more evidence needs to be gathered — ideally through clinical trials — to confirm improving oral health in the population will lead to brain health benefits.”

More Data Still Needed to Explain Link Between Oral Health and Brain Health

Although the study is still in its preliminary stages, one limitation that was noted was the fact that the data was taken from the UK Biobank, which has mostly white, European participants. This means that it doesn’t represent other people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

As for professor and director of the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute in Ohio, Joseph Broderick, MD, he shared in a statement that it’s also not necessarily clear from the study whether good oral health habits could possibly prevent these changes in the brain that are associated with stroke or cognitive decline, nor do they show how big a role genetics also plays in this situation.

Dr. Broderick, who was not involved in the study, also said, “Environmental factors such as smoking and health conditions such as diabetes are much stronger risk factors for poor oral health than any genetic marker — except for rare genetic conditions associated with poor oral health, such as defective or missing enamel.”

“It is still good advice to pay attention to oral hygiene and health. However, since people with poor brain health are likely to be less attentive to good oral health compared to those with normal brain health, it is impossible to prove cause and effect,” Broderick added.