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by Alicia Ni Ghrainne, Wednesday, November 12, 2014 | Categories: General Health

Over the last number of years, associations have been made between gum disease and a number of conditions and illnesses including Alzheimer's, pancreatic cancer, and heart disease. Oral hygiene is not just about having a million dollar smile and studies are showing that good oral maintenance is can be a preventative measure against certain chronic and long term illnesses. Recent research presents findings in support of suspicions relating to gum disease and the manifold effects it is thought to have on the body.

In 2010, researchers at New York University discovered a link between Alzheimer's and gum disease. Their conclusions were based on twenty years of research on the topic and looked specifically at cognitive function in patients with gum disease. The test for cognitive function is called the ‘digit symbol test’ (DST) and low scores were associated in patients with gum inflammation. 152 Danish subjects were tested at the age of 50 and again at 70. Those with low scores on the DST at 70 also suffered with inflammation of the gums. The study even took into account poor oral health that might have been associated with obesity or smoking but despite considering these risk factors, the correlation between these low scores and gum disease was significant.

A more recent study, carried out in the UK in 2013, looked at brain samples from 10 Alzheimer’s patients and 10 brain samples from subjects who did not suffer with the condition. The study gleaned that porophyromonas gingivalis, a bacterium that is associated with chronic gum disease, was found only in the brain samples of the Alzheimer’s sufferers. More recently, the same team, at the University of Central Lancashire, carried out a mouse study earlier this year. The study evidenced that two out of the three main gum disease causing bacteria are motile. This means that they are often found in brain tissue having travelled from the mouth. Their mobility allows them to travel via the roots of the teeth, through the nerves that connect these roots to the brain, and they can also travel to the brain via the circulatory system, i.e, the blood. The study also supported their hypothesis that the chemicals released by the brain in response to this bacterium, actually damage neurons in the area of the brain associated with memory. 

Gum disease is also thought to be strongly associated with pancreatic cancer and a team at the Harvard School of Public Health made their suspicions known in 2007 having examined periodontitis, a type of gum disease affecting tissue that supports the teeth.

Looking through data from more than 50,000 men, over a period that spanned almost thirty years, it was found that men with a history of such gum problems had a 64 percent greater risk of pancreatic cancer than men who never had gum disease. The study cannot tell us if the gum disease causes the cancer or if it’s the other way around, but we know for sure that there is a strong link between the two conditions in this case.

The relationship between gum disease and heart disease has been widely written about thanks to a study carried out in 2008 by both the University of Bristol and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. The research teams discovered that heart disease risk is greater in subjects who suffer from bleeding gums because mouth bacteria more easily enters the bloodstream, forming clots and therefore stymieing the flow of blood to the heart.

These are all interesting studies but we have to emphasise that some of the studies are very small and more work is required. Also, please remember that correlation is not the same as causation! See this article for further information on why gum disease is unlikely to cause heart disease.

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