Dental Care May Be Important Element in Avoiding Alzheimer's

Caregiver, patient expert

As people age, even the healthiest among us tend to need more maintenance. While young people can skip sleep and still function well, older people may need more rest to regain their energy. While young people may seem to thrive on junk food and sporadic exercise, older people may find that their bodies are more demanding about receiving their required nutrients and exercise if they are to stay vital. Increasingly, oral health is making news in this area.

Good oral hygiene is important throughout life, but as our teeth and gums age, we are more likely to have root canals, gingivitis, and other dental issues that provide the millions of bacteria in our mouths methods of invading our blood streams.

Studies have long tied oral bacteria to heart disease and infection in joint replacements. Now, they are looking at oral bacteria as one possible trigger for the type of Alzheimer’s disease that strikes people over 65.

While we all have these bacteria, and there is a threat of the bacteria entering our bloodstream, the further threat is that some of these bacteria may get through the blood brain barrier causing inflammation in the brain. Many researchers consider inflammation in the brain to be one of several triggers than may cause Alzheimer’s.

Looking back, I’d unknowingly put my brain at risk when I battled infection in an old root canal that had cracked. I let the dentist try several approaches before I finally said that I wanted the infected tooth pulled out. Eventually, I had that done.

The scary part for me came later, after I read the article about bacteria in oral infections and the brain. I can’t change anything that I did, and the problem is corrected, but if I’d known about the possibility of this oral bacteria getting to my brain, I’d have had the tooth pulled sooner. While I’m not yet in the age group of considered highly at risk for developing Alzheimer’s symptoms, I’m well aware that the disease begins as much as two decades before we have symptoms. I shudder to think that I may have put myself at risk by being cavalier about my dental care.

Oral health becomes a much bigger issue when adult children find that their elderly parents aren’t properly cleaning dentures or are letting dental cleaning slide. This continued maintenance of the body gets tiresome, especially for elderly people who may have several medical issues that require extra time and energy to manage. That's when oral health can be considered an unimportant bother. It’s even more of an issue for people who grew up thinking that you only went to the dentist if you were in pain.

No one should wait until they are in pain before seeing their dentist. Even those who wear dentures should have oral exams. Dental care is expensive. If cost is keeping you or your elder away from the dentist, check with your local health department. They should be able to direct you to a dental clinic that can deliver lower cost dental care.

If dental phobia is keeping you or your loved one away, find a dentist who uses nitrous oxide (gas). Consider oral care an important - even urgent - part of your overall health care routine, if for no other reason that by doing so you may be protecting your brain.

Carol is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. She runs award winning websites at _ www.mindingourelders.comand  On Twitter, f_ollow Carol @mindingourelder and on Facebook: Minding Our Elders

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