Does oral health influence brain health? New data outline link

James Eaton

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Could oral health have a bearing on brain health? Image credit: NICK VEASEY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images.
  • B​rain health affects how well the brain functions in various aspects of life.
  • Multiple factors contribute to positive brain health, including lifestyle choices and habits.
  • Data from a recent study suggest that poor oral health may be linked to poor brain health.
  • Further research is needed to fully understand how oral health impacts brain health.

The human brain controls body functions — its health greatly influences a person’s well-being. There is still much about the brain that researchers are still working to understand, including what factors influence brain health.

In a new study, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, have found that people who are genetically predisposed to poor oral health also tend to have poorer brain health.

The findings indicate the need for further research into the full impact of oral health and if good oral habits can positively impact brain health.

The study authors are planning to share the results of their research at the International Stroke Conference 2023.

The brain is a complex organ controlling major functions in the body essential for keeping us alive. It allows people to think, move, breathe, and express emotion.

B​rain health” is a broad term that often refers to the brain’s ability to carry out its normal functions, and a lack of neurological diseases that impact brain function.

Lexi Watson, an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner (IFMCP) and Reversing Cognitive Decline (ReCODE) 2.0 Certified Practitioner, who was not involved in the current study, explained to Medical News Today that, in the simplest terms, “[b]rain health is the optimization of the many factors that contribute to brain and cognitive function in order to allow your body to achieve its highest expression of health.”

Many factors can influence brain health, and people can make lifestyle modifications that may affect it. For example, limiting alcohol, quitting smoking, controlling high blood pressure, following a healthy diet, and getting enough physical activity may all contribute to good brain health.

“Factors that contribute to brain health include nutrient levels and nutrition as well as stress levels and your body’s response to that stress,” said Watson. “By the way,” she added, “stress is much more than just mental [or] emotional stress. Blood sugar imbalance, lack of quality sleep, an overload of toxins, and ongoing inflammation all contribute to stress on the body.”

Researchers are still working to understand all the factors that contribute to brain health and how people can best take steps to improve it.

The authors of the new study wanted to examine how oral health impacts brain health. Study author Dr. Cyprien Rivier explained to MNT:

“The main goal was to investigate the link between poor oral health and brain health. We already know that poor oral health increases the risk of stroke, but we did not know whether poor oral health affected brain health. Brain health is a continuous measure that describes the functional status of a person’s brain using neuroimaging tools such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Studying oral health is especially important because it is an easily modifiable risk factor: Everyone can effectively improve their oral health with minimal time and financial investment.”

Researchers used a specific method called mendelian randomization, which involves looking at genetics and health outcomes.

They analyzed data from the UK Biobank, selecting individuals who had never experienced a stroke. They looked at over 100 genetic variants associated with poor oral health outcomes, such as missing teeth and cavities.

T​hey then looked at brain scans to measure indicators of brain health. The researchers found that the genetically-increased risk of poor oral health was associated with poorer brain health.

This included a higher incidence of silent cerebrovascular disease, which affects the brain’s blood supply, and microstructural damage.

“People who were genetically prone to cavities, missing teeth, or needing dentures had a higher burden of silent cerebrovascular disease, as represented by a 24{a5ceed037b574a4d8c6b44a0a7290437cee40655417128da3b56d864fe64414f} increase in the amount of white matter hyperintensities visible on the MRI images,” Dr. Rivier explained.

“Those with overall genetically poor oral health had increased damage to the fine architecture of the brain, as represented by a 43{a5ceed037b574a4d8c6b44a0a7290437cee40655417128da3b56d864fe64414f} change in microstructural damage scores visible on the MRI scans. Microstructural damage scores are whole-brain summaries of the damage sustained by the fine architecture of each brain region,” he added.

Based on these findings, the study’s authors suggest that treating poor oral health early may help significantly improve brain health.

The study did have several limitations that indicate the need for more extensive research. Mendelian randomization results indicate a causal relationship between the examined factors, but this is not entirely certain.

Because they used data from the UK Biobank, which includes predominantly white British participants as 94{a5ceed037b574a4d8c6b44a0a7290437cee40655417128da3b56d864fe64414f} of the participants self-report as white, further research could also include more diverse cohorts.

Commenting on the findings, Watson noted that they “confirm for me the importance of oral health in overall brain health.”

“What I would like to see next is a study demonstrating what I see in practice, that taking care of your oral health can mitigate your genetic risk. Genes are not your destiny, just information to help steer your efforts in the right direction,” she emphasized.

Dr. Rivier also noted that this study is a first step and that confirming the research will take time:

“One important next step is to replicate these findings in different populations, especially groups from other races/ ethnic backgrounds. If this research is confirmed, taking measures to improve oral health could lead to significant benefits at a population level. It must be noted that our study is preliminary, and more evidence needs to be gathered, ideally through clinical trials, to show that improving oral health in the population leads to brain health benefits.”

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