By now, you’ve prob­a­bly seen the recent head­lines high­light­ing a pos­si­ble link between Alzheimer’s dis­ease and poor oral health. You may be get­ting ques­tions from clients, or even think­ing about how this infor­ma­tion could impact your own fam­i­ly.

Alzheimer’s affects near­ly 5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and is the sixth lead­ing cause of death in the U.S. — so it’s no won­der that the poten­tial den­tal con­nec­tion is rais­ing con­cerns. How­ev­er, before your groups start pan­ick­ing, and fever­ish­ly reach­ing for their tooth­brush­es, it’s impor­tant to set a few things straight about the research.

New evidence, but not a new idea

The poten­tial link between Alzheimer’s and poor oral health is not a new dis­cov­ery. In 2008, peri­odon­tal (gum) dis­ease was already iden­ti­fied as a pos­si­ble risk fac­tor for Alzheimer’s. Since then, the body of evi­dence sup­port­ing the link has only grown. A group of researchers iden­ti­fied P. gin­gi­valis as the spe­cif­ic kind of oral bac­te­ria asso­ci­at­ed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. Sub­se­quent stud­ies have found that this same type of bac­te­ria, often the cul­prit for gum dis­ease, can trans­fer from the mouth to the brain in mice. Once P. gin­gi­valis enters the brain, it can cre­ate the char­ac­ter­is­tic symp­toms of Alzheimer’s.

The lat­est study mak­ing waves fur­ther explores the role of P. gin­gi­valis in the devel­op­ment and pro­gres­sion of Alzheimer’s. Researchers looked at brain tis­sue, sali­va and spinal flu­id from Alzheimer’s patients, and not only found evi­dence of P. gin­gi­valis, but they also dis­cov­ered the pres­ence of a tox­ic enzyme cre­at­ed by P. gin­gi­valis in 96% of the brain tis­sue sam­ples exam­ined. Once in the brain, this tox­ic enzyme can destroy brain neu­rons, a hall­mark fea­ture of Alzheimer’s.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation

While the new study adds to the evi­dence that gum dis­ease is asso­ci­at­ed with Alzheimer’s risk, not every­one who has Alzheimer’s has gum dis­ease, and not every­one who has gum dis­ease has Alzheimer’s. Addi­tion­al research is need­ed to under­stand if and how a cause and effect rela­tion­ship exists. While more needs to be learned, it’s still impor­tant to encour­age groups to pre­vent and man­age gum dis­ease, espe­cial­ly in old­er adults or indi­vid­u­als who have increased risk for demen­tia.

Oral health is just one piece of the puzzle

Alzheimer’s is linked to a host of risk fac­tors, not just poor oral health. Genet­ics, heart health, dia­betes, hyper­ten­sion, exer­cise and diet may also play a role, just to name a few. Here’s the good news — by encour­ag­ing groups to pri­or­i­tize oral health, you may also be help­ing improve their over­all health! Send groups to our Smile­Way® Well­ness site for resources to pro­tect their smiles and well-being for years to come.

For more thought lead­er­ship from Delta Den­tal, sub­scribe to Insid­er Update, our newslet­ter for bro­kers, agents and con­sul­tants.

If you’re a ben­e­fits deci­sion mak­er, admin­is­tra­tor or HR pro­fes­sion­al, sub­scribe to our group newslet­ter, Word of Mouth.