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Don't Forget Your Toothbrush: Oral Hygiene Linked to Dementia

01/08/2013 17:49 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 10:12 BST
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Two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night. Maintaining good oral health doesn't take up much time at all in the grand scheme of your busy day. But don't underestimate the importance of those four little minutes.

Not only does regular brushing help keep your teeth and gums healthy, it may also hold some protection against a number of chronic disease, with the latest research pointing the toothbrush at Alzheimer's disease.

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, scientist found unusually high levels of Porphyromonas gingivalis, a type of bacteria which causes gum disease, in brain samples from 10 deceased dementia patients. The researchers have suggested that the bacteria may make its way from the mouth to the brain, via the bloodstream, triggering the immune system to release chemicals which can kill brain cells.

Although this latest study hasn't proven that this type of bacterium causes Alzheimer's disease, it has shown that bacteria found in the mouth can get to the brain. If anything, it's likely that these bacteria could make existing dementia worse - although not necessarily cause it.

More research is needed to confirm if a link exists. However, given the amount of previous research already linking bad oral hygiene to a number of conditions and diseases, this area certainly has grounds for further investigation.

For many years now, studies have looked into the potential link between dental health and cardiovascular disease, with many establishing a connection. For example, a review of research in 2009 concluded that people with gum disease are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and a 2010 study of over 11,000 people concluded that poor oral hygiene is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The exact reasons why bad oral hygiene is linked to cardiovascular disease aren't fully conclusive. However, experts believe that the bacteria in gum disease can cause inflammation in the body, which plays a role in atherosclerosis - the process in which fatty deposits build up on the inside of your arteries and weaken the artery walls.

I would add though, it's hard to always establish a cause and effect in areas of research such as this. For example, do people have bad oral health because of the food and drink they consume? Surely an individual's diet contributes far more to the development of cardiovascular disease, and bad oral health is simply one consequence of this. This theory can also be applied to the link between oral health and cancer and oral health and dementia. Could a poor lifestyle be more to blame in some cases?

As research continues into the link between oral hygiene and overall health, I think it's important for people to be more aware of this connection. Brushing twice a day, as well as flossing and keeping to those all-important dental appointments, could be doing far more than just helping to maintain a healthy smile; it might also play a role in the prevention of chronic diseases.