A recent study has come out from the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggesting that periodontal disease may be an initiator of Alzheimer’s disease. So let’s discuss what periodontal disease is, and what we can do to keep not only our oral health, but our general health in good condition.
What is periodontal disease?
Periodontal disease is a disease which affects the supporting structures of our teeth, knows as the periodontium. It is commonly known as gum disease, but it’s important to know the distinction between reversible gum disease (gingivitis), and irreversible periodontitis.
When plaque bacteria build up along the gum-line our immune system tries to get rid of it by initiating an inflammatory reaction. This will cause them to bleed easily e.g when brushing and flossing, they may be tender and they may swell up.
By improving your oral hygiene, and seeing your dentist regularly, this inflammatory progress can be reversed, and you can bring your gums back to health. Interestingly, pregnant woman can be more prone to this, and this is known as pregnancy gingivitis. This usually settles after the baby is born.
However, if this gingivitis is left to progress, it will start to affect the deeper supporting structures of the tooth, including the bone. Gaps can start to form between the tooth and the gum, called ‘periodontal pockets’. Your dentist will screen for these pockets at your dental examinations. If you have pockets, they will measure and record these. This can be help monitor the progression of gum-disease, as unfortunately gum-disease is mostly symptom-free and painless until it is too late.
Once periodontal pockets are established, more plaque and bacteria will get trapped in these pockets, causing even more damage to the supporting structures of the teeth. Over time, the bone will be damaged and will be lost. Once the supporting bone has been lost, it won’t grow back. Over-time this means there is less and less to hold the tooth in place, teeth will become loose and will eventually be lost, or have to be extracted.
What can be done to treat gum disease?
They key is prevention. Caught at an early stage gum disease can be reversed.
- Brush twice a day – making care to brush along the gum-line.
- Clean between your teeth daily – using floss and/or interdental brushes.
- Get your gums checked by your dentist – your dentist will assess your risk and advise when you should return. This could range from between three monthly to yearly.
If your dentist does detect gum disease, it’s important to treat it straight away. The further this disease progresses, the harder it is to treat. Treatment may involve referral to a periodontist – a gum specialist.
What if I have dental implants?
Gum disease can still affect dental implants. We call this peri-implantitis – inflammation of the supporting structures of the implant. Worst case scenario, this can cause the implant to be lost. This is why it is so important to have any dental work properly maintained.
Dental implant. Notice the implant and the tooth roots
enclosed in healthy bone.
If you have active gum disease and are thinking about implants, it’s important to get the disease treated first, to allow for the best success of your implants.
Gum Disease and General Health
The study from the University of Illinois (UIC) was headed by Professor Keiko Watanabe, professor of periodontics. Professor Watanabe said: “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”.
“Our data not only demonstrate the movement of bacteria from the mouth to the brain, but also that chronic infection leads to neural effects similar to Alzheimer’s,” Dr Watanabe said.
This movement of bacteria from the mouth – via the bloodstream, or through inhalation – is the key to why there are links between periodontal disease and multiple other diseases. In addition, chronic uncontrolled inflammation plays a role in almost every major disease, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Inhalation of plaque bacteria has also been linked to pneumonia.
Some people are more prone to this inflammation, but there are many things you can do to help, including eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and practicing good oral hygiene.
Regular dental examinations and gum-checks are essential, as you may have no symptoms of gum disease.
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