Smart Aging Connection: Oral Health & Brain Health
Riding the wave of New Year reflections and perhaps resolutions, there’s no better time to address the under-appreciated topics of Smart Aging. In this newsletter, we’ll explore the link between oral health and brain health, why this linkage is so important and what you can do to improve dental hygiene.
The Mind/Body Relationship
The “mind-body relationship” of oral care goes both ways. Growing up, some people develop a fearful and anxious relationship with going to the dentist, which creates additional life challenges when dental care is avoided. Likewise, mental health challenges can contribute to oral problems like gum disease, cavities, and enamel erosion. Either way, it’s not smart.
The most important takeaway from today’s newsletter: Recent studies point to a potential correlation between oral health and brain health in at least four major areas:
- Periodontitis: an advanced form of gum disease that can contribute to systemic inflammation, which may affect the brain. This could result in an added risk for Alzheimer’s Disease by adding plaque to the brain.
- Bacteria: bacteria that is associated with gum disease can enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, possibly playing a role in cognitive decline. Oral bacteria has been observed in brain samples of Alzheimer’s patients, though more research is needed to establish the nature of the impact.
- Nutrition: poor dental health makes it harder for a person to chew a variety of foods. This can lead to malnutrition, which has negative consequences for overall health, including brain health. Adequate nutrition is crucial for cognitive function.
Stroke: some research has suggested a connection between gum disease and increased risk of stroke. Good dental hygiene may decrease one’s risk for stroke.
What makes good oral care so hard, especially for older adults?
In a frantic world full of dire messaging, it’s easy to lose sight of important habits that build a solid foundation of self-care. Oral hygiene is often taken for granted or misunderstood. Dental care starts – but by no means ends – with daily attention to brushing, flossing, and bacteria-preventing mouthwash.
Often, there are the usual “too busy” excuses to go slow or execute the basic daily habits. Add dementia and/or arthritis and the usual care is often forgotten, avoided, or mishandled. Especially in some nursing homes when dental care takes lots of time for residents, it just falls off “today’s list” and may or may not make tomorrow’s. In addition, important visits to the dentist for professional care can be difficult to maintain due to transportation, time, or cost issues.
Why is Oral Hygiene so Important?
With all the challenges, there is a startling cautionary tale: “Over a ten-year period, chronic periodontitis is associated with a 70% increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, similar to the risk from tobacco use or obesity,” says Steven Masley, MD (author of The Better Brain Solution). Fortunately, there are many tools that make oral hygiene maintenance easier for older adults.
Important tools for good hygiene:
- Electric toothbrushes: helpful for everyone, but especially important for older adults. Electric brushes are more effective at removing plaque and debris, especially for those with arthritis, hopefully avoiding gum disease.
- Water flossers: hand flossing is the gold standard, but water flossers are an easy alternative and very effective removing plaque and debris along the gumline.
- Tongue scrapers: removes bacteria and debris from the tongue’s surface, reducing the risk of bad breath and contributing to better oral health.
- Regular dental checkups: twice-a-year dental checkups are ideal, to identify problems early and provide personalized advice on best practices.
The good news is that by prioritizing oral health with good habits, one can significantly reduce risk factors. It’s never too late to start or reenergize good daily and professional care. The Smart Aging perspective is to keep dental care high on the Care Plan list and not lost in the swirl of other important medical or emotional issues. They are all interrelated, and good habits will help.
Care managers are masters at helping families juggle the challenges of aging, from the seemingly simple to the complex, with a Smart Aging approach.