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Keep Flossing for Memory's Sake

It turns out a healthy mouth can help in the fight against dementia

By Sonia Villarreal

Now in my 60s, whenever I feel confused or forgetful, the thought of being in the early stages of dementia crosses my mind. Many know someone facing a neurological disability like Alzheimer's, possibly a loved one such as a parent, sibling or spouse.

A person flossing their teeth at home. Next Avenue
For those 50+, flossing is a simple practice to help prevent other age-related diseases, including cognitive decline.

We read about the many healthy ways to stay cognitively strong; it is now becoming evident one of the ways is oral hygiene. Oral hygiene is a part of daily care at any age; for those in their fifties and older, it's a simple practice to help prevent other age-related diseases, including cognitive decline. 

Neglecting this area of care could lead to pathogens from oral infections crossing into the blood system, possibly reaching and entering the brain's protective cells and blood vessels, helping to compound the possible onset of those vulnerable to dementia.

The Importance of a Healthy Oral Cavity

A healthy oral cavity is increasingly crucial in preventing gum disease as we age. This simple kind of care practiced throughout our lives matters more as we grow into our older age because oral health helps overall well-being

Ignoring mouth care may bring on a chance for bacteria, viruses and even fungi to fester.

Ignoring mouth care may bring on a chance for bacteria, viruses and even fungi to fester. Unfortunately, these pathogens do not just settle in our mouths; they can spread to the rest of our bodies, including the brain.

If it is already established, oral bacteria can get drawn into the respiratory tract and lead to pneumonia. Evidence also shows an association between cardiovascular disease and oral health, such as chronic gum disease and coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis).

According to the Dental Academy of Continuing Education, there is emerging evidence between periodontal disease and dementia

Dementia and Neuron Damage

Dementia symptoms including loss of memory, behavioral changes and decreased activities of daily living begin to diminish a person's quality of life — eventually requiring help to complete ordinary care, depending on the type of dementia diagnosed.

We all lose neurons gradually as we age. But for a person with dementia, neuron damage is happening faster. There's no proven way to prevent it, and there is no cure yet.

Living a healthy lifestyle may help reduce risk factors. The most common recommendation for mental well-being includes plenty of sleep, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, exercising regularly and challenging our minds with mental exercises and activities. 


Periodontal Disease

Also known as gum disease, it may include inflammation and infection of the gums and bones surrounding and supporting our teeth. If left untreated, gum disease can cause loss of bone that supports teeth, ultimately causing loose teeth or tooth loss.

It starts with plaque buildup that can evolve into gingivitis, a milder gum disease. It is usually reversible if treated with professional care and good oral hygiene. But if left untreated, the condition can progress to more severe gum disease. 

The irritation and swelling can cause deep pockets between the teeth and gums. Plaque, tartar and bacteria can fill the pockets, causing them to grow deeper with time.

Periodontal Disease and Dementia

Even though the connection between periodontal disease and dementia continues to get attention, it is still uncertain if it is included as a risk factor. Two culprits believed to connect gum disease and dementia are infection and inflammation.

If left untreated, gum disease can cause bone loss that ultimately causes loose teeth or tooth loss.

Infection may allow oral pathogens from a festering mouth condition to find their way into the blood system, reaching already damaged neurons in the brain and adding to the burdened organ.

Often where there is an infection, there is inflammation. The ongoing swelling and irritation in the oral cavity may affect the immune response already battling damaged neurons in the brain. The fighting immune system must try to repair and heal the oral cavity as it continues to combat neuroinflammation in the brain. 

Importance of Daily Care

Prevention of gum disease for a loved one living with dementia is not always easy. Depending on the person's cognitive ability, completing the morning routine, including oral care, may range from them having the capacity to complete regular care routines themselves to needing someone present to assist.

Schedule and keep regular dental appointments for yourself or the person you are caring for. See a dental provider as soon as possible at the onset of unusual or uncommon changes in teeth and gums, especially if the condition is persistent or worsens.

Other concerns may include side effects of oral medication that may cause oral or gum changes. Sometimes a patient does not have the ability to communicate discomfort or pain. The sooner the individual is seen by a dental provider, the better the chances of reversing any deterioration of the oral cavity and possibly lightening the load on an already struggling immune system.

Sonia Villarreal
Sonia Villarreal, RN, combines her 25 years of nursing experience with her passion for writing and sharing her insight and knowledge of healthcare topics. Sonia lives in San Benito, Texas. Read More
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