Like Alzheimer’s disease (AD) itself, gum damage, tooth loss, and other dental problems are often labeled as “normal” aspects of aging. But also like AD, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Recent research is telling us that poor oral health can be prevented, and prevention should absolutely be an important focus for every aging person on this planet. Not only do good dental habits help preserve oral function as well as image – in other words, quality of life – they also help maintain cognitive function.
It makes sense that oral health plays such an important role in our overall well-being. Think about it: the mouth, throat, and tongue are absolutely vital for speech, as well as chewing, swallowing, and digesting the foods that give us the critical nutrients to sustain life. Also, they are in near-constant contact with the external environment, and their job descriptions include filtering and processing disease-causing microbes and antigens. If they can’t perform all of their job duties correctly, we can’t eat and we’re more susceptible to harmful pathogens. Beyond that, our self-image is affected when we lose our smile, which can lead to social isolation and even contribute to depression– two major risk factors for AD.
There are many reasons poor oral health seems to go hand in hand with aging. Seniors tend to develop diseases, like heart disease, associated with poor oral problems at higher rates. As someone ages, it may simply be more difficult for them to take care of their teeth and gums. Illness or disability may keep them from completing basic oral care tasks and/or getting to a dentist or oral health specialist. Those already suffering from dementia may especially have difficulties in this regard.
If You’re a Care Partner
While it’s certainly true that dementia can make caring for oral health more difficult, AD patients can maintain good dental health as well as their peers without dementia.
The key here in your role is to not overlook the importance of dental care in favor of other aspects of care. Encourage dental care and educate them about the connections between oral health and overall well-being as discussed above. If you help your patient or loved one with daily tasks, be sure to include:
Brushing and flossing– and keep these supplies stocked and available in their home.
Remind them to keep up their regular professional dental exams and cleanings. Some older adults may require cleanings more frequently than the traditional twice-yearly schedule.
Help your patient to schedule and attend regular exams and cleanings.
Encourage them to quit smoking if they do and assist in this process. Not only does smoking lead to poorer overall oral health, but it also leads to an increased risk for AD.
If they have gum disease, share that they may need a special sensitivity toothpaste that doesn’t cause pain or irritation.
If they have dentures, ask if they’re cleaning them regularly, treating them the same as they would their natural teeth.
Of course, diet also plays a role in dental health. For example, reduce sugar intake, for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.
Poor oral health and poor cognitive status have a strong correlation, and as such, it is important for aging professionals and caregivers to ensure access and resources for those with Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It is also good prevention to maintain good oral hygiene as a protective factor for a healthy brain!
The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF) is the leading voice for the integrative medical approach to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
ARPF provides an alternative to the conventional “magic bullet” drug approach. We believe that you can help yourself, right now, by using an integrative medical approach based on the lifestyle tools we advocate. Modern medical research reveals that all of the aspects of the ARPF’s Four Pillars of Prevention, including physical and mental exercise, especially when used together, help build a healthier and stronger brain and memory.