Periodontal Disease May Spark Alzheimer’s Disease, Study Says
Periodontal disease may help initiate Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that untreated periodontal disease caused inflammation and the degeneration of brain neurons in mice that’s similar to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
“Other studies have demonstrated a close association between periodontitis and cognitive impairment, but this is the first study to show that exposure to the periodontal bacteria results in the formation of senile plaques that accelerate the development of neuropathology found in Alzheimer’s patients,” Dr. Keiko Watanabe, one of the study’s authors, told Science Daily.
The mice that were exposed to the bacteria again and again had much higher amounts of a senile plaque that’s found in the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients.
What this means is that the bacteria from periodontal disease is not just travelling from the mouth to the brain; it’s also significantly disrupting the brain, to a potentially fatal degree, when it’s left unchecked over a long enough period.
A new common thread
Periodontal disease has already been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer, though the nature of those relationships is just beginning to come into focus. Initially, the catalyst seemed to be the bacteria from periodontal disease. But now it appears that inflammation, the body’s natural response to infection (periodontal disease is an infection) plays a role, too.
Scientists don’t completely understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people, either, though this new study potentially exposes one of the clearest paths yet. There’s thought to be a genetic component in some early-onset cases. Late-onset Alzheimer’s stems from a complicated series of brain changes that occur over decades, according to the National Institute on Aging.
The causes likely include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. But it’s been difficult to understand how much of an influence each one of those has because their importance can vary from person to person. In other words, there’s not a straightforward cause-and-effect equation. But that may be about to change.
For a while now, there’s been a lot of interest in the factors beyond genetics, like the relationship between cognitive decline and heart disease and diabetes. With this new study, there’s suddenly a common thread: periodontal disease.
What we do know
For all the uncertainty, here’s what we do know about Alzheimer’s disease. Back in 1906, Dr. Alois Alzheimer noticed abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fiber (now called tau or tangles) in the brain tissue of a woman who died of an unusual mental illness. These plaques and tangles are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another is the loss of connections between neurons. Neurons are the body’s broadband. They transmit messages between different parts of the brain and from the brain to muscles and organs. Imagine if all your emails started coming back as undeliverable. In a very basic sense, that’s kind of what having Alzheimer’s is like.
It gets murky from there, but researchers think it’s likely that damage to the brain begins a decade or even more before memory or other cognitive problems become apparent. All the while people feel and appear to be symptom-free. But as more neurons die, more of the brain is affected. What begins as occasional forgetfulness will eventually evolve to an inability to do even the simplest stuff.
Because the onset is still shrouded in mystery, and the rate of progression is different from person to person, Alzheimer’s disease, at this point, is irreversible.
How widespread is it? It’s hard to come up with a concrete count because it’s commonly misdiagnosed and undiagnosed, but the consensus is that about 5.5 million Americans have it. It’s ranked as the sixth-leading cause of death, though it may be closer to the third, behind heart disease and cancer, for older adults, according to the National Institute on Aging.
With our population about to become older than ever before, because of the large amount of aging Baby Boomers, there’s a heightened urgency to understand Alzheimer’s before those numbers begin rising sharply.
Too good to be true?
More positively, a nutritious diet, physical activity, social engagement, and mental stimulation have all been shown to help people stay healthy as they age, and there’s a hope among the scientific community that they may also reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. A number of clinical trials are testing those possibilities now.
But what if it turns out to be even easier than that in most cases? What if it comes down to simply preventing and treating periodontal disease? Sound too good to be true? Consider this, then: Right now, half of American adults have periodontal disease, and 70 percent of adults 65 and older have it.
Seems like a minimal investment for a potentially huge reward, right? So, let’s start here. You’ll find a rundown of some of the clearer warning signs for periodontal disease. If you think you may have it, or even if you’re unsure, contact my office and schedule an appointment. I’ll conduct a Comprehensive Periodontal Evaluation.
If you’ve read this far, what’s another hour, especially when it could mean adding years to your life?