Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in the world, making up for 70% of all cases according to the World Health Organization. With over 50 million people suffering from dementia globally — and 10 million new cases every year — it’s a major problem for our species.
Periodontal diseases are even more prevalent with nearly half of all people aged 30 or older suffering from some form of it. This rate rises further to 70% for those at the age of 65 and beyond.
While both Alzheimer’s and gum disease are very common, most people wouldn’t suspect that there’s any correlation between the two since one affects the brain and the other is more of an oral issue. That said, scientists have discovered research that could point to the contrary.
The Potential Link
According to recent studies, a certain bacterium associated with gum disease — or more formally, periodontitis — may be contributing to the symptoms seen in Alzheimer’s patients. This bacterium is known as porphyromonasgingivalis.
P. gingivalis wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it stayed in your mouth but sadly, that doesn‘t seem to be the case. As periodontitis breaks down the cells in your gums, the bacteria residing there have the opportunity to enter other areas of your body.
They can travel to distant organs and build bacterial colonies in places where they really shouldn’t be. One organ that they could make their way to is the brain — the last place you’d want bacterial colonies to call home.
But how does a bacterium affect Alzheimer’s? Well, P. gingivalis releases toxins known as gingipains that can compromise any surrounding tissue structure. This can damage the cells in your brain which is bad enough.
The worst part is that amyloid-beta plaques can form over these wounds in a scab-like fashion. As you may know, many researchers suspect that the buildup of amyloid deposits is what causes Alzheimer’s in the first place — making P. gingivalis a major threat to your sound mind.
Don’t Sleep On It
P. gingivalis also has a snowball effect once it gets a foothold on the brain since its presence can make it harder for your system to flush it out. The brain cells responsible for responding to light and regulating your circadian rhythm can be disrupted by P. gingivalis.
This is a huge problem since your brain cleans out the toxins while you sleep so, if P. gingivalis interrupts that cleansing period, it’ll be harder for your system to clear out toxins like gingipains and even amyloid-beta deposits.
To simplify the concept, you can think of your brain as a toilet. P. gingivalis hinders performance on the flush and thus, you’ll start to see the accumulation of grime. Eventually, the buildup will lead to a full-blown clog that disables the whole system — much like Alzheimer’s.
While this discovery that poor dental hygiene may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s is certainly frightening, it’s also a breakthrough. Now that scientists have spotted the correlation, they could potentially use P. gingivalis as a biomarker.
They could test for the presence of P. gingivalis in patients to gauge their odds of developing Alzheimer’s. Think of it as an early warning sign that doctors can check for when trying to evaluate whether or not a patient is at risk.
Beyond diagnosis, researchers have also been trying to leverage this recent discovery in an effort to find a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s. The logic here is that, if P. gingivalis may contribute to Alzheimer’s, getting rid of it could lower the risk of patients.
A 2019 study sought to test out potential treatment plans. First, mice were infected with P. gingivalis. As expected, there was a visible increase in amyloid-beta plaques in the test subjects. Scientists then injected a small molecule into the mice.
What exactly does this molecule do? It inhibits the ability of P. gingivalis to absorb energy — essentially starving the colony of resources it needs to grow. The result was a reduction in the bacterial presence as well as a drop in inflammation.
Far more interesting, however, was that the production of amyloid-beta plaques was stopped in its tracks. According to the researchers leading the study, the molecule rescued neurons in the hippocampus. This is very significant since the hippocampus is crucial to memory.
The 2019 study was a success but it’s not exactly the end of the story. While it did freeze the production of amyloid-beta plaques, mice and humans aren’t the same — nor do their brains function in the same way.
The results were very promising but there’s no guarantee that it’ll translate to a similar outcome in humans. That’s what scientists are trying to figure out. With some luck, the molecule that rescued the mice will be able to bring beta-amyloid plaque production to a grinding halt.
Scientists conducted a pair of phase I clinical trials in 2018 to ensure that the drug is safe for humans. These two trials were focused on the safety of the drug rather than the efficacy, and as such, the participants had no underlying conditions.
As you can imagine, giving an experimental drug to Alzheimer’s patients before verifying its safety isn’t something that the FDA would be too pleased with. Now that the safety has been verified, there is a phase II trial currently underway.
Phase II trials contain much larger sample sizes and test on patients that are suffering from the condition in question — in this case, Alzheimer’s. If the second phase goes well, then researchers will move into phase III with randomized controlled trials on thousands of people.
While you wait for clinical trials to yield results, there are some other things you can do to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. The three tips below may not eliminate the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s completely, but they will definitely get you more favorable odds.
As we explained above, your brain clears toxins — such as gingipains and beta-amyloid plaques — while you sleep. This is why you should get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Teenagers are advised to get up to 10 hours.
The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation lists exercise as a pillar of prevention. In addition to preventing Alzheimer’s, working out can also reduce your risk of heart and lung diseases, making it a well-rounded approach towards good health.
Staying socially engaged can lower your odds of developing dementia later in life. Whether it’s group classes, community volunteering, or hobby groups, interacting with others will boost your mental health. Having a strong social group can also prevent burnout which is a nice bonus.
As you can see, brushing your teeth and visiting the dentist does more than maintain your pearly whites. We spend a lifetime gathering beautiful memories. The moments we’ve shared with our loved ones make us who we are — that’s why we need to hang onto those memories.
Don’t hesitate to call us at (312) 236-9325 if you have any questions about preventing gum disease, staying safe from P. gingivalis, and safeguarding the sanctity of your hippocampus as a result! Remember, healthy gums make for happier minds!