A study published earlier this year led by King’s College London and the University of Southampton has suggested a link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. As I have explored before in my post Healthy Bodies Need Healthy Gums, gum disease is not a problem that just effects your oral health, but increasingly we are finding links between the condition and serious chronic diseases.
The way gum disease impacts on chronic diseases varies depending on the condition. In some cases the presence of gingivitis or periodontal disease might increase your risk of developing a condition, such as with heart disease. In others the chronic condition can make it harder to treat gum disease, for example with osteoporosis, making it more likely that gingivitis develops into periodontitis and the potential loss of teeth. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease it appears that the presence of gum disease in patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s can increase the rate of cognitive decline.
Gum Disease And Cognitive Decline In Alzheimer’s Sufferers
Although the study was small, just 59 participants, the results do suggest that there was a six-fold increase in the rate of cognitive decline (memory and thinking) over a six month period. However, the study isn’t clear whether this is cause or effect – memory loss and progressive dementia may mean people with Alzheimer’s forget or don’t appreciate the importance of looking after their teeth and therefore gum disease could be more common in this group.
It should also be noted that some prescription drugs can also increase the risk of gum disease developing, particularly those that cause a dry mouth and therefore reduce the amount of salvia protecting teeth and gums. Many antidepressants that are commonly prescribed to people with Alzheimer’s have this side effect.
Whatever the reason for this link, gum disease has a detrimental effect on health and could result in more distress for those people already coping with a debilitating and traumatic disease.
Help For Those With Alzheimer’s
In many instances it falls to those people caring for patients with Alzheimer’s to look after their oral health. Once a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it is important to assess their oral health and dental hygiene routines. By establishing good oral care habits early on, the patient may be able to manage their oral health themselves for longer, even as the condition worsens.
Advice for sufferers and their carers is no different than for anyone else:
- Brush teeth and gums twice a day for a minimum of two minutes,
- Always brush before going to bed to help protect teeth and gums during the night,
- Use interdental brushes, floss and a GumSaver brush regularly, establishing a habit of thorough cleaning,
- Continue to brush areas of the mouth even if there is sensitivity, brushing is an effective treatment for sore gums and removes the bacteria that causes gum disease,
- If affected by a dry mouth, rinse regularly with water to relieve symptoms and particularly after meals to remove food particles,
- Go for regular check ups with your dentist and ask for specific advice on caring for teeth and gums if you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s.
As the condition progresses it may be necessary for carers to take a more active role in the patient’s oral care. This may include the following:
- Reminding them to clean their teeth and perhaps showing them how to do it,
- Supervising their brushing, flossing and use of interdental brushes to ensure they are keeping on top of their oral health,
- Helping them to clean their teeth by taking over this aspect of their care – your dentist should be able to offer guidance on how best to do this,
- Monitoring their behaviour to identify any problems with their oral health. For example, refusing to eat, repeatedly touching or pulling their face or mouth, restlessness and aggressive behaviour can all be a result of an underlying problem with their teeth and gums.
While Alzheimer’s is a condition that is both distressing for the sufferer and those around them, caring for their oral health is one way to help sufferers maintain their self-esteem, dignity and nutrition. Gum disease can lead to pain and discomfort as well as tooth loss, which can be particularly distressing for those suffering from this condition.
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