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Longevity Briefs: Can A Healthy Mouth Prevent Cognitive Decline?

Posted on 6 June 2024

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

The problem:

As the population ages, cognitive impairment and dementia are becoming major health concerns. Yet cognitive decline in old age does not seem to be inevitable.  We need to understand why some people remain sharp and dementia-free into old age so that we can all adopt the lifestyle practices that stave off cognitive decline. One such practice might be the maintenance of a healthy gut, since some studies suggest that a healthy and diverse population of gut bacteria may prevent neurodegeneration. Some researchers also suspect that the bacteria in your mouth – the oral microbiome – could also have an impact on cognitive function.

The discovery:

In this study, researchers examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2011–2012. The analysis included 605 participants aged 60–69 and used genetic sequencing to measure the diversity of the oral microbiome. After controlling for confounding factors, they found that higher oral microbial α-diversity (that’s the microbial diversity within a given sample) was significantly correlated with better performance in tests designed to measure executive function (brain’s ability to coordinate thought and action in a goal-directed manner).

Subjects with lower oral microbial diversity were also more likely to report that they noticed their memory worsening over the previous year, but objective memory tests did not detect any significant relationship between microbial diversity and memory performance.

The implications:

This research supports the findings of previous studies suggesting that oral microbiome diversity correlates with cognitive function in old age, and could potentially be targeted to prevent cognitive decline. The study’s main strength was its relatively large size in comparison to previous studies. However, it doesn’t prove that poor microbial diversity causes cognitive decline. Cognitive decline could have led to poor oral hygiene, or they could both be the result of poor general health. More research will be needed to fully understand this relationship. The authors point to the fact that disturbances in the oral microbiome lead to an increase in inflammation, which may accelerate cognitive decline and development of dementia. A healthy oral microbiome can be fostered by maintaining good oral hygiene, consuming a diet low in added sugars, and limiting alcohol consumption. 

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    Title image by Lesly Juarez

    Association of the oral microbiome with cognitive function among older adults: NHANES 2011–2012

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