Can looking after teeth and gums protect against dementia?

  • 16th January 2024

Image credit: Professor Nicola West

People with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment are already taking part in research to investigate whether improving oral health can slow memory loss but even more people are needed to help. The MySmile study, led by the University of Bristol, wants to find out if a daily brushing routine could help to protect against dementia.

Dementia affects nearly one million people in the UK – one in eight people over age 65 currently have the condition – and the number is expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2050*. There are many types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia being the most common. But it is still not known what steps, if any, could delay or slow down dementia.

MySmile, led by Nicola West, Professor in Restorative Dentistry at Bristol Dental School, in collaboration with Elizabeth Coulthard, Professor of Cognitive Neurology at Bristol Medical School: Translational Health Sciences (THS) and neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

The research team believe Alzheimer’s disease might be linked to oral health and certain bacteria found in the mouth (oral bacteria) and that looking after teeth and gums could make a difference.

The team will test the importance of teeth and gums by inviting people with very early changes to their thinking and memory to take part in the study. Participants will be assessed for their oral health, and eligible individuals will be asked to take part in the trial to see if improved dental care and oral hygiene can slow down the progression of dementia.

The study is for people aged 60 and over who have early signs of change – known as mild cognitive impairment – or with diagnosed early-stage Alzheimer’s dementia. The research team believe that these individuals are the most likely to benefit from enhanced dental care and oral hygiene. The challenge, however, is to find people in these early stages, because not everyone with changes in their thinking and memory have a diagnosis and so may not yet be known to their local health care services.

Study volunteers will be invited to attend an assessment of their memory and given a dental check at the Bristol Brain Centre, Southmead Hospital, and will be provided with an electric toothbrush. Those with signs of gum disease will be divided into two groups. One group will continue with their usual dental care routine, while the other group will be offered additional dental care right away. The first group will also be offered additional dental care after one year. All study participants will be invited back at a later date for further check-ups and memory assessments.

Professor Nicola West said:

“Improving dental hygiene is good for all of us, and cleaning teeth twice a day reduces the oral bacteria in a person’s blood stream. We want to find out if a daily brushing routine could also help to protect against dementia.”

Professor Elizabeth Coulthard added:

“We need more people to help us find out whether good dental health also improves brain health. It is very exciting to think that people could live independently for longer through measures such as improving their oral health.”

The research team is keen to hear from people who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or early-stage Alzheimer’s dementia, are over the age of 60 and live in Bristol or the surrounding areas. Recruitment for the study will be open until August 2024.

For more information or to register your interest, please contact the study team research nurse Nikki Hellin, email [email protected] or call 07773 579130.