Dr. Alyssa Harris

The Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published their “2020 Profile of Older Americans” in May of 2021.  They predict that by 2040 there will be 14.4 million adults over the age of 85 living in the United States. In 2019 this number was less than 7 million.

As the population of older Americans grows, so too should our focus on ways to stay healthy and live well in the later stages of life. Recent studies by the National Institutes of Health suggest that good oral health may help reduce risk factors for a disease often associated with aging: dementia.

In 2020, the NIH identified periodontal disease as a risk factor for the development and progression of dementia. Periodontal disease is caused when specific types of bacteria break down supporting structures of teeth including the gums, ligaments and bone that surround each tooth root.

These bacteria can cause destruction in different ways; some release toxic molecules and some ramp up the body’s natural immune system.  Scientists found that the bacterial toxin called gingipain, released by the periodontal bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis, can cross the blood-brain barrier and directly degrade brain proteins to become the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers are still investigating how strongly correlated periodontal disease and dementia are. While we don’t know all the details, the research mentioned above certainly seems to provide even more reasons for maintaining good oral health and avoiding or treating periodontal disease. Many dental benefit plans have different policies regarding coverage for periodontal disease, so make sure you know what your plan covers in case your dentist tells you that you need periodontal treatment.

There are countless good reasons to take great care of our oral health with regular visits to the dentist and good dental hygiene habits. These recent studies from the NIH, especially for the increasing number of aging Americans, suggest yet another good reason.  Visit cdc.gov/oralhealth for oral health tips and resources.

Dr. Alyssa Harris is a dentist at Partnership Health Center in Seeley Lake