Poor oral health may affect brain later on: early study

An early study has shown keeping your gums and teeth healthy may have added benefits for your brain health.

Preliminary research, set to be presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference next week, suggests adults who are genetically prone to poor oral health could be at a greater risk of showing signs of declining brain health.

Since the results are preliminary, the researchers say more evidence, including through clinical trials, and a more diverse pool of subjects, is needed.

“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,” study author Dr. Cyprien Rivier, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., said in a news release from the American Stroke Association.

“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.”

The American Stroke Association pointed to previous studies that have shown gum disease, missing teeth, poor brushing and lack of plaque removal can increase the risk of stroke.

Gum disease and other oral health issues are also linked to conditions such as high blood pressure, the association says.

For the latest study, researchers between 2014 and 2021 looked at 40,000 adults enrolled in the biomedical database known as the UK Biobank.

Forty-six per cent of the adults were men and their average age was 57. None had a history of stroke.

The researchers screened the participants for 105 genetic variants that would make them more likely to develop cavities or missing teeth or need dentures later in life.

They also screened the individuals for signs of poor breath health using MRI.

The researchers found that those who were genetically prone to poor oral health had a 24 per cent increase in white matter hyperintensities, or built up damage to the brain’s white matter which can affect memory, balance and mobility.

Individuals with poor oral health also showed a 43 per cent change in microstructural damage, or the amount of “fine architecture” in the brain that has changed compared to a healthy adult of a similar age, the researchers say.

Dr. Joseph P. Broderick, a professor at the University of Cincinnati Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said in the same news release from the American Stroke Association that while the study does not show dental hygiene improves brain health , the findings are “intriguing” and warrant further research.

“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,” Broderick said.

“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 concerned about good oral health compared to those with normal brain health, it is impossible to prove cause and effect.

“Also, genetic profiles for increased risk of oral health may overlap with genetic risk factors for other chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke, infections, etc. that are known to be related to brain imaging markers.”

The researchers highlighted certain limitations of the study, including that the Biobank only includes those who live in the UK

Ninety-four per cent of participants in the Biobank are white and the researchers say research involving people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is needed.

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