Bad oral health is very unpleasant and can affect one’s self-esteem quite a lot, which can ultimately cause stress. But this stress-inducing effect of poor oral health barely scratches the surface of the long list of other adverse ways gum and tooth issues affect our health.
For one, poor dental health has been associated with heart issues, which we wrote about extensively here. A more recent discovery is the link between oral health and cognitive functioning, particularly memory and attention. More specifically, poor oral health in seniors has been associated with cognitive decline. Read more about the scientific basis of this correlation below.
The Surprising Link Between Oral Health and Cognition
As mentioned in the introduction, dental and gum diseases are known to affect us both psychologically and physically, but only recently we came to understand that these conditions can also affect our brain. This is a relatively new area of medical research, and so far, most studies have focused on the correlation between cognitive decline in older adults and poor oral hygiene.
A systematic review published in March of 2019 found that several cognitive functions may be affected by poor oral health. The study reviewed 23 different articles about oral health and cognition in older adults and established that even after controlling for many confounding covariates, patients exhibiting memory decline, poor mental control, learning and attention difficulties often also had some kind of dental or gum issues.
Unsurprisingly, all of these brain functions also typically decline in patients suffering from some version of dementia.
Even more recently, in August of 2019, one additional epidemiological study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics also considered this link and found something very similar. Of the 2.700 Chinese American men and women of a mean age of 72, 47.8% reported having teeth symptoms and 18.9% reported having gum symptoms.
The participants of the study completed a series of cognitive tasks measuring their episodic memory, executive function, and working memory. And while the results did not establish any correlation between gum issues and cognitive changes, those that had issues with their teeth did perform worse on the episodic memory task and did exhibit at least some cognitive decline.
Interestingly, it is specifically deficits in episodic memory, or the ability to memorize, recall, and mentally re-experience specific episodes from one's personal past, that are associated with Alzheimer's and dementia. In fact, changes in episodic memory are often seen in seniors years before the onset of dementia, which makes this observation of decreased episodic memory and poor dental health even more interesting and worth further investigation.
As this is a new area of research, the cause-effect relationship between oral health and cognition isn't completely clear, but it's still worth taking note of, as a routine dentist's appointment may help your brain function better for longer.
To summarize, current research suggests that dental health problems in seniors are linked with poor memory and overall cognitive changes.