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Experts say proper brushing can lead to good dental health. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers say poor dental health, including cavities and missing teeth, can lead to a decline in brain health.
  • They note their findings are the latest confirmation that poor oral health can cause health issues elsewhere in the body.
  • Experts say it’s important to make regular visits to the dentist as well as practice good oral hygiene at home.

New research indicates that markers of bad oral health — including gum disease, missing teeth, and plaque buildup — are associated with an increased risk of stroke.

The preliminary research, which hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, is being presented next week at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference in Dallas.

Researchers say their study adds to the current body of knowledge surrounding the link between poor oral health and negative health outcomes elsewhere in the body.

Dr. Cyprien Rivier, a study author and a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, told Healthline that while previous research linked poor dental health to heart disease risk factors, the new research evaluated the relationship between oral health and brain health.

“Our study expands existing evidence showing the adverse effects of oral health on cardiovascular health by extending it to brain health,” he explained. “The core message is that we need to be extra careful with our oral hygiene because it has implications far beyond the mouth.”

Cavities, missing teeth, and dentures

Rivier and his colleagues reported that people with a genetic predisposition to cavities and missing teeth were more likely to have brain health issues.

By analyzing the data of about 40,000 adults with an average age of 57 in the U.K. Biobank, researchers said they found that people with poor oral health were more likely to have accumulated damage in the brain’s white matter.

Rivier said the next avenues for research include replicating these findings in different populations.

“If this research is confirmed, taking measures to improve oral health could lead to significant benefits at a population level,” he said. “We also hope that our work will encourage future research on the effects of oral health on other organs and conditions.”

Rivier also noted that the study is preliminary and more evidence — ideally through clinical trials — needs to be gathered in order to show that improving oral health leads to brain health benefits.

Oral health goes far beyond the mouth

Dr. Alan Reisinger, the associate medical director of healthcare company MDVIP and board member of the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health, says that poor oral health is associated with negative health outcomes throughout the body.

“One possible reason is that when the body fights the bacteria that cause gum disease, it raises inflammation throughout the body,” he told Healthline. “This systemic inflammation can increase a person’s risk for a host of problems including heart attacks, strokes, dementia, pregnancy complications, and certain cancers.”

He also emphasized the importance of collaboration between the medical and dental communities, saying that there’s greater recognition of the important link between oral health and systemic health.

“Today there is a small but growing number of dental and medical professionals participating in organizations like the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health and the Integrative Dental Medicine Scholar Society,” he told Healthline. “Our goal is to foster stronger collaboration between doctors, dentists, dental hygienists, nutritionists, and others and raise awareness that the mouth can be a root cause of numerous systemic diseases.”

Keeping chronic problems at bay

Many dental problems develop slowly over time and leaving them untreated can lead to more problems down the line.

“Having a bite that’s off, or neglecting your home care, may take years before those problems develop into recognizable symptoms,” Nathan Estrin, DMD, a periodontist in Sarasota, Florida, told Healthline. “One of the worst financial mistakes you can make when you are young is neglecting your home care. Leaving dental problems unresolved leads to bigger complications and more expensive treatment plans later in life.”

Karen Potter, DDS, an endodontist in San Clemente, California, told Healthline that she tells her patients that teeth were made to last for 40 or 50 years — and many people have lifespans that double this, making oral care extremely important.

“There are two types of oral care: at home and in the dental office,” she explained. “At-home care is important because it keeps the bacterial load down on a daily basis. Visits to the dentist are important because the hygienist can scrape off bacteria that have become hard and can’t be removed with a toothbrush or floss.”

Both Estrin and Potter stress the age-old advice you’ve probably heard from your dentist: brush and floss your teeth daily, keep an eye on your gumline to keep plaque buildup at bay, and try to nip problems in the bud before they become bigger issues down the line.