Healthy Mouth, Healthier Brain!

Most of us go to the dentist for our annual cleaning and checkup. When we are there, regardless of how our teeth look, we get asked the dreaded question about flossing our teeth. We don’t want to lie, but it doesn’t sound so good when we admit to flossing “on occasion.”

Now, there is good news for dentists and patients who want to stave off cognitive decline, and new reasons to floss your teeth regularly—whether you are using the dental floss they give you at the dentist, a dental pick, or a water flosser.

Studies Show That Flossing Can Prevent Cognitive Decline

Ever since we were children, it has been ingrained in us how important flossing is but, as mentioned, many of us simply don’t do it regularly. An analysis led by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College shows that good oral hygiene habits, such as brushing and flossing, may help prevent cognitive impairment and dementia. Recently, researchers conducted 14 long-term studies on tooth loss and cognitive impairment. They found that among 34,074 adults, 4,689 of whom had diminished cognitive function, those who were missing teeth had a 1.48 times higher risk of developing cognitive impairment and 1.28 times higher risk of developing dementia. Missing teeth, gingivitis, and other dental problems can often be avoided by brushing and flossing regularly.

When asked about the study, Bei Wu, a professor in global health at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the senior study author said, “Given the staggering number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia each year, and the opportunity to improve oral health across the life span, it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between poor oral health and cognitive decline.”

Gingivitis (Gum Disease) is Linked to Cognitive Decline

As mentioned, gingivitis can often be prevented by proper brushing and flossing. For those who have gingivitis, or gum disease, it has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and according to another study published in Science Advances, the bacteria that causes gingivitis also may be connected to Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have previously found that this species of bacteria, called Porphyromonas gingivalis, can move from the mouth to the brain. Once in the brain, the bacteria releases enzymes called gingipains that can destroy nerve cells, which in turn can lead to memory loss and eventually Alzheimer’s.

In this study, researchers looked for evidence of this process in human brains. They examined the brains of 53 deceased people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and found high levels of gingipain in almost all of them. They also noted that the amount of gingipain tended to rise over time, which suggests there may be a tipping point when dementia symptoms first begin. A more recent study at NYU has similar findings.

Missing Teeth Also Linked to Dementia

Additional findings from the NYU study described above involved those with missing teeth, who don’t wear dentures. They are also among those at a higher risk of cognitive decline. While it is not clear why exactly dentures make a difference in cognitive decline, the researchers hypothesize that it could be that those with dentures eat healthier food because they are able to chew those foods properly, thus having an overall better diet. Dentures are also credited by the study’s authors with improving the self-esteem of those who wear them, which could lessen instances of depression.

Take Care of Your Oral Hygiene Every Day

Taking care of your teeth and gums as you get older can prevent problems such as toothaches, tooth decay (cavities), and tooth loss. A healthy mouth also makes it easier for you to eat well and enjoy food.

There are many reasons why we neglect flossing, but as you can see, we are only doing ourselves a disservice when we don’t floss. Flossing doesn’t just clean the roughly 30% of our tooth surface that brushing alone cannot reach, it also freshens our breath by removing debris and food particles from between the teeth, and keeps plaque and bacteria away from our gum line.

Also, as explained, flossing isn’t just good for our mouths, it’s good for the overall health of our bodies. The bacteria it clears away has been found to contribute to medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and as mentioned, Alzheimer’s disease.

If you haven’t already, consider turning over a new leaf and taking good care of your teeth. Here are some steps to keep your teeth and gums healthy as you get older.

  • Brush after breakfast and before bed: Floss between your teeth every day. If you have trouble flossing, ask your dentist about using a special brush or pick instead.
  • Eat healthy and cut down on sugary foods and drinks: This can help prevent tooth decay – and it’s good for your overall health.
  • Don’t smoke or use other tobacco products: Smoking puts you at higher risk for oral cancer and increases your risk for gum disease.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation: This means no more than 1 drink a day for women or 2 drinks a day for men. Heavy drinking increases your risk of oral cancer.
  • Beware of fluoride: As much as those in the dental community tout the use of fluoride, it’s actually quite controversial. Read my prior article on the subject

Consider Using a Water Flosser for Cleaner Teeth

When it comes to clean teeth, water can get in smaller areas than string to provide a better floss, so water flossers should be considered. Additionally, water pressure can be adjusted to the appropriate firmness for your gums. Decades of research on water flossing has found that, compared to string, water flossing is:

  • 151% as effective at reducing gingivitis
  • 129% as effective at removing plaque
  • 200% as effective at reducing bleeding

These are some examples of highly-rated water flossers available today:

  • Instafloss is engineered to reach everywhere a toothbrush (and even traditional flossing) cannot, thoroughly cleaning between your teeth and underneath the gum line all the way around each tooth.
  • Water-flossing your teeth in the shower takes seconds, not even minutes. ToothShower is a dental care company which manufactures products that make oral home care easier and more enjoyable.

See Your Dentist Regularly for a Checkup and Cleaning

There’s no single rule for how often people need to see the dentist – it varies from person to person. The next time you get a checkup and cleaning, ask your dentist how often you need to come in.

Keep in mind that Medicare doesn’t pay for routine dental care. You may want to get private dental insurance. Get help finding low-cost dental care here.

For more information about keeping your mouth healthy as you get older, check out:

Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth

Dental Health Info for Older Adults (PDF)

Take Care of Yourself and Plan for the Future

At the Farr Law Firm, we care about our client’s health, quality of life, and well-being. Remember, part of taking care of yourself is planning for your future and for your loved ones. If you have not done your own Incapacity Planning or Estate Planning, or if you are caring for a loved one who is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797
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