Fresh breath, a pretty smile and healthy teeth and gums – they’re the reasons you brush your teeth each day and see a dentist twice a year.
But what if brushing and flossing also helped to keep your brain – and the rest of your body – healthy, too?
Experts say it might.
There are at least 700 different kinds of bacteria living in the mouth, some of which cause gum disease and other infections. A growing body of evidence links those infections to chronic illnesses in other parts of the body, including the brain and heart. While researchers have long known about the link, it’s been unclear which came first or why. But recent research reveals problems in the mouth exist decades before chronic illnesses surface elsewhere, suggesting infections like gum disease could serve as a warning flag.
“It surprises people that the mouth triggers what’s going on in the rest of the body,” Ryan Demmer, an associate professor in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis says.
The link between gum disease and chronic illnesses
Demmer led a 2020 study published in the journal “Neurology” showing people with gum disease in midlife were more likely than those without to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment over 20 years of follow-up – and those with infections severe enough to cause tooth loss were twice as likely to suffer a loss in brain health.
As people age, the balance of good and bad bacteria in the mouth shifts, creating an environment more vulnerable to gum disease and other infections associated with a higher risk for illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and dementia. But whether these germs are causing chronic illness, contributing to its development or just making the body more vulnerable to disease by creating inflammation remains uncertain.
Knowing gum disease precedes other chronic conditions doesn’t mean it’s