You know that you should brush your teeth every day, preferably twice a day or more. You know you should floss, swish with a fluoride mouthwash, and schedule regular dental exams. You do this to keep your mouth healthy and prevent cavities and other oral health problems, like gum disease and tooth loss.
But did you know that regular oral health care can also improve your memory and learning abilities as you age?
Studies and research shows that maintaining your oral health has a lot of effects on your overall health, including brain health. This connection is beneficial whether you are 6 or 60.
How Oral Health Affects Your Brain
We already know that the condition of your oral health has a connection to many other systemic conditions throughout the body, like heart disease, inflammation, and diabetes. However, a growing body of evidence supports the connection between your mouth health and your brain health. For example, poor oral health leads to gum disease, which indicates an increased risk for strokes, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.[i]
Other research suggests that poor oral health and tooth loss can affect cognitive function, memory, and learning. A study out of NYU indicates an association between tooth loss and the development of mild memory impairment. While the reason for the association is not known, the researchers have some ideas about why tooth infection causes brain confusion and memory problems, including:[ii]
- Nutritional deficiencies because of difficulties chewing some foods detract from the function
- Heightened inflammation levels raise the chances of developing plaques in the brain that cause dementia
- Socioeconomic or education factors, highlighted by a lack of denture use, which are high-risk factors for dementia
- Worsening brain impairment prevents regular oral care, which leads to worsening symptoms of poor oral health and more tooth loss
Tooth Loss Decreases Cognitive Ability
So, what causes a decrease in cognitive ability? The critical connection is inflammation. Having cavities or gum disease that causes tooth loss can lead to inflammation that travels through similar pathways that lead to the brain. That inflammation can increase the risk of strokes or other brain diseases. It can also influence how the brain works. Thus, the thinking we do every day, like remembering, learning, and problem-solving, is not what it used to be. [i]
Also, pain might keep people from eating certain foods, and the potential nutritional value that might have been beneficial to the brain is lost. Then, as brain health and function worsen, people forget to take care of their oral hygiene, and their oral health declines even more. So, people lose even more teeth, which means fewer nutritional options. It's a cyclical relationship—and it does not go anywhere good for your brain or your teeth.
Does Losing Teeth Affect Your Ability to Learn?
So far, we have talked about how oral and brain health declines affect older adults. However, children and younger adults also suffer from these effects.
Early tooth loss can result in a failure to thrive, speech delay, and reduced self-esteem. Left untreated, the pain and infection caused by tooth decay can result in problems with eating, speaking, attentiveness and learning. [ii]
With kids, tooth loss starts with tooth decay, which most kids have plenty of in their lives. The U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Oral Health calls out tooth decay as the most prevalent childhood disease. If kids' teeth and mouth hurt, they are more likely to miss school, which experts say is associated with doing poorly. Moreover, if their mouth hurts, it's hard to concentrate in class when they are there. One study suggests that kids with poor oral health care were almost three times more likely to miss school because their teeth hurt. [iii]
Tooth loss also affects memory. A study in 2010 of 4,000 Japanese people that were 65 and older indicated that people with fewer or no teeth were much more likely to have memory loss or early-stage Alzheimer's diseases than those who still had their natural teeth. Moreover, many of the participants that had memory loss said they rarely went to the dentist, if they went at all.[i]
Once again, the culprit here is inflammation. The lead researcher says that when people lose teeth, they may release inflammatory substances into their system that makes it to the brain. As the brain inflammation increases, the neurons die, and memory loss increases. Like many of the associations between oral health and brain health, this relationship between tooth loss and memory loss is cyclical. [ii]
In addition to memory loss and impairment, tooth loss can lead to dementia also. A study out of NYU indicated that adults with tooth loss had almost a 1.5 X higher risk of developing cognitive impairment and 1.3 X risk of dementia. In addition, the study revealed that adults that did not have dentures to replace their teeth were almost 24% more likely to have cognitive impairment than those that had dentures.[iii] Of course, we already know that there is a clear association between tooth loss and Alzheimer's disease related to the inflammation of gum disease, the loss of chewing capacity to get nutrients and oxygen to the brain, and a genetic propensity to have the conditions. [iv]
How to Reduce Tooth Loss
This brings us back to where we started: Taking care of your teeth and oral hygiene can help take care of your brain. By preventing the tooth loss caused by infections from advanced gum disease, or periodontitis, you also avoid the poor effects it can have on your brain health.
Reducing your chances of tooth infection starts with good dental hygiene, which includes:
- Brushing your teeth for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste twice a day
- Flossing once a day
- Eating less sugar and more fruits and vegetables
- Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco—or never starting
- Drinking water with fluoride
- Seeing your dental team at least twice a year
It would help if you also addressed your brain health. In addition to maintaining a consistent and comprehensive oral hygiene routine, it is essential to take care of your body. Get enough sleep and eat a nutritious diet. Drink plenty of water and ensure you get regular exercise.
Talk to Your Dentist
It would be best if you always talked to your dentist about any oral health concerns. For example, if you have bleeding when you brush and floss, eat certain foods, or have pain, you should tell your dentist. You should also share any dental or health problems you have so that the team can respond appropriately with their care recommendations.
If you are talking with your dental team about your child, ask if sealants are in order. Dental sealants have been excellent for preventing cavities for many years. Children that do not have sealants have three times more first molar cavities than children with sealants.[v] To find out more about dental sealants and how they can protect your children's teeth check out our Dental sealants Blog.
Smile Generation-trusted dental professionals can help you protect your teeth and your brain or provide your child with better oral health to help them succeed in school. Use our Smile Generation Find a Dentist tool to find a trusted dentist near you.
[i] Christensen T. How oral health may affect your heart, brain and risk of death. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2021/03/19/how-oral-health-may-affect-your-heart-brain-and-risk-of-death. Published 2021. Accessed April 29, 2022.
[ii] Tooth loss in older adults linked to higher risk of dementia. nia.nih.gov. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/tooth-loss-older-adults-linked-higher-risk-dementia. Published 2021. Accessed April 29, 2022.
[i] Cherney K. Fear of the Dentist: How to Cope with Dentophobia. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fear-of-dentist. Published 2020. Accessed April 25, 2022.
[ii] Holt, K. Barzel, R. 2013. Oral Health and Learning: When Children’s Oral Health Suffers, So Does Their Ability to Learn. (3rd Ed.)Washington D.C., National Maternal and Child Oral Health.
[iii] Jackson SL, Vann WF Jr, Kotch JB, Pahel BT, Lee JY. Impact of poor oral health on children's school attendance and performance. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(10):1900-1906. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2010.200915
[i] Preidt R. Tooth Loss May Be Linked to Memory Loss. consumer.healthday.com. https://consumer.healthday.com/senior-citizen-information-31/misc-aging-news-10/tooth-loss-may-be-linked-to-memory-loss-648432.html. Published 2011. Accessed April 29, 2022.
[ii] Preidt R. Tooth Loss May Be Linked to Memory Loss. consumer.healthday.com. https://consumer.healthday.com/senior-citizen-information-31/misc-aging-news-10/tooth-loss-may-be-linked-to-memory-loss-648432.html. Published 2011. Accessed April 29, 2022.
[iii] Cherney K. Fear of the Dentist: How to Cope with Dentophobia. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fear-of-dentist. Published 2020. Accessed April 25, 2022.