With age, the fear of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias may grow, and understandably so. About 5.7 million people in the U.S. have dementia currently, and as the population grows, so will that sobering statistic, experts predict.
So, you probably already know that a heart-healthy diet is a brain-healthy one, that regular exercise may help you dodge this scourge, and that staying socially active can reduce your chances of becoming a statistic, too.
So what more can you do? Recent research suggests you might also pay attention to two other areas: the status of your dental health and reducing or eliminating certain drugs known an anticholinergics, if possible. Experts have not yet proven cause and effect between gum disease and Alzheimer’s, nor between taking the anticholinergic drugs and the brain disorder, but both topics are definitely worth addressing.
Two recent Studies’ Findings
Gum Disease & Your Brain—A bacteria known to be involved in periodontal or gum disease (causing inflammation and bleeding when you brush) may boost the risk of Alzheimer’s, according to a recent study which echoes some findings from previous research. This time, scientists looked at the brain tissue, spinal fluid and saliva from Alzheimer’s patients, finding evidence of the pathogen known as P. gingivalis boosting dementia risk. A toxic enzyme secreted by the P. gingivalis, gingipains, was found in 96% of the brain tissue samples evaluated; higher levels were found in those with symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers, working this time with animal testing, confirmed that P. gingivalis can travel from the mouth to the brain and that the toxic enzymes can actually destroy brain neurons.
Again, this latest study can’t prove the link. But the results of this recent study do echo previous findings by others, the American Academy of Periodontology says.
Drugs & Your Brain—Exposure to several types of strong anticholinergic drugs are linked with an increased risk of dementia, says Carol Coupland, PhD, professor of medical statistics in primary care at the University of Nottingham. He led a study looking at these drugs—such as some antihistamines, antidepressants, medications for GI problems and for bladder disorders.
The drugs work by blocking acetylcholine, which is critical to regulate muscles and control messages sent to the nervous system.
The team focused on more than 58,000 patients who had a diagnosis of dementia and more than 225,000 control patients who did not. They found dementia risk increased if people took anticholinergic drugs; longer exposure and higher doses boosted the risk more.
There was between a 6% and 49% increased risk of dementia, depending on the dose and duration of use,” Copland says. However, while the study suggests a link, ”this is not conclusive and the link may be due to other factors.” For instance, depression may precede dementia and then the anticholinergic drug is prescribed to treat it.
Here’s what not to do, says Coupland. “It is important that readers who are taking these drugs don’t stop taking them suddenly as this could be harmful to their health,” Coupland says.
He also reminds people that these are long-term effects from the medications ”but anyone with concerns should discuss them with their doctor and weigh up the benefits and potential risks of these medications.”
In the paper, Coupland’s team suggests that ”these drugs should be prescribed with caution in middle-aged and older adults.”
Joan Otomo-Corgel, DDS, MPH, FACD, a past president of the American Academy of Periodontology, associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry and a periodontologist in Los Angeles, calls the link between gum disease and dementia found in the other study ”pretty strong” but agrees no one has proven a cause and effect yet.
She tells anyone with gum disease to focus on getting rid of the biofilm—”we used to call it plaque”—and thus reduce the bacterial population in the mouth. Getting rid of the biofilm depends on knowing how to brush and floss properly, she says. The goal is to prevent the attachment of the biofilm.
“Have a good clinical exam,” she says. “Brush up on how to do oral hygiene.” Ask your own dentist or gum specialist exactly which products and equipment you should use, based on your health status.
For a quick review on whether you’re doing enough to reduce your Alzheimer’s risk, see these tips from the Alzheimer’s Association.
Have you improved your gum health? If so, how and what tips do you have?
Have you discontinued, with your doctor’s OK, some type of anticholinergic drug?
How much do you worry about dementia, and how do you reduce that stress?
Let us know in the comments!