Poor oral health may contribute to declines in brain health

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Taking care of your teeth and gums may offer benefits beyond oral health such as improving brain health, according to preliminary research to be presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2023

The meeting, to be held in person in Dallas and virtually, 8-10 February, is a world premier meeting for researchers and clinicians dedicated to the science of stroke and brain health.

Studies have shown that gum disease, missing teeth and other signs of poor oral health, as well as poor brushing habits and lack of plaque removal, increase stroke risk. Previous research has also found that gum disease and other oral health concerns are linked to heart disease risk factors and other conditions like high blood pressure.

“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,” said study author Cyprien Rivier, at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Between 2014 and 2021, researchers in this study analysed the potential link between oral health and brain health among about 40,000 adults (46 per cent men, average age 57 years) without a history of stroke enrolled in the UK Biobank. Participants were screened for 105 genetic variants known to predispose persons to have cavities, dentures and missing teeth later in life, and the relationship between the burden of these genetic risk factors for poor oral health and brain health was evaluated.

The analysis found people who were genetically prone to cavities, missing teeth or needing dentures had a higher burden of silent cerebrovascular disease, as represented by a 24 per cent increase in the amount of white matter hyperintensities visible on the MRI images.

Those with overall genetically poor oral health had increased damage to the fine architecture of the brain, as represented by a 43 per cent change in microstructural damage scores visible on the MRI scans. Microstructural damage scores are whole-brain summaries of the damage sustained by the fine architecture of each brain region.

“Poor oral health may cause declines in brain health, so we need to be extra careful with our oral hygiene because it has implications far beyond the mouth,” Rivier said. 

“However, this study is preliminary, and more evidence needs to be gathered—ideally through clinical trials—to confirm improving oral health in the population will lead to brain health benefits.”

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