Although gum disease is an infection of the area around your teeth, its effects can extend far beyond your mouth, putting your health at risk in many ways. One of the more alarming connections that has come to light recently is the link between gum disease and dementia. 

Researchers strongly linked the toxin produced by a certain oral bacteria to the development of dementia. Fortunately, we can use a salivary DNA test to determine whether you have this type of oral bacterium, and how prevalent it is in your mouth. We can then use this and other information to help us decide how aggressively to approach your gum disease treatment. 

An older man brushes his teeth in front of a mirror in the bathroom

Linking Gum Disease and Dementia

For a long time, researchers have observed that people who had lost teeth had a much higher risk of dementia. There were many potential explanations, including the way that chewing motion can stimulate brain activity and development. 

However, in 2018, researchers made what seems like a definitive link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most well-known forms of dementia. Researchers exposed mice to the oral bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis three times a week for 22 weeks. When they sacrificed the mice, they found that P. gingivalis had colonized the mice’s brains, and that the brains were full of toxic gingipains released by the bacteria. The gingipains also induced changes in the mice’s brains that look like the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, including degeneration of the hippocampus, a key region damaged by this type of dementia. None of these changes were seen in mice given similar treatment with the carrier matrix, but not the bacteria. 

Last year, the team continued their work and repeated the results of the first study, further adding that inhibitors targeting the bacteria’s gingipains might be a successful treatment. The inhibitors reduced bacteria in the brain, stopped production of brain plaque, and saved threatened neurons in the mice’s hippocampi.

More Recent Research Linking Oral Bacteria to Health Problems

However, dementia isn’t the only condition linked to oral bacteria. For example, last year researchers found that 84% of stroke patients had oral bacterial DNA in the blood clots that caused their stroke. These were usually streptococcus strains. 

And in 2015, researchers found that another oral bacterium Fusobacterium Nucleatum could inhibit the immune system’s ability to target and destroy cancer cells. It was thought that this could at least partly explain the link between gum disease and elevated cancer risk. 

What Bacteria Live in Your Mouth?

The mouth is a complex microbiome that can host a wide diversity of oral bacteria. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of species that live there (more are being discovered all the time). Unfortunately, when we scrape the plaque off your teeth, we can’t tell what type of bacteria are living in that plaque. We need a more advanced tool to give us that information. 

Fortunately, we have the tools to test your saliva and sort out the DNA of the bacteria found in your mouth. We will be able to tell what bacteria you have and which ones are in sufficient numbers to be a concern. We can then use this in deciding how aggressively we should treat your gum disease. Maybe a simple change in oral hygiene is all you need, but maybe you need a more invasive treatment. Aggressive treatment is worth it if you can prevent serious illness later in life. 

To learn more about the role of saliva testing at our practice, please call 703-349-4277 today for an appointment at the office of general dentist Dr. Pamela Marzban in Burke, VA.