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Possible Alzheimer's signpost

Gum inflammation may be linked to increased risk of the brain disorder.

June 27, 2005|Kevin W. McCullough | Times Staff Writer

Missing teeth and gum disease at an early age may be linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, researchers have found, bolstering the increasingly strong connection between early exposure to chronic inflammation and the degenerative brain disorder.

The study, among the findings presented last week at the first Alzheimer's Assn. International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, examined lifestyle factors of more than 100 pairs of identical twins. All of the pairs included one twin who had developed dementia and one who hadn't. Because identical twins are genetically indistinguishable, the study involved only risk factors that could be modified to help protect against dementia.

Twins who had severe periodontal disease before they were 35 years old had a fivefold increase in risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, the researchers found.

Lead author Margaret Gatz, a psychology professor at USC, cautioned that the link between periodontal disease and Alzheimer's doesn't mean that extra flossing will reduce that risk.

"We're not saying, 'Brush your teeth: Prevent Alzheimer's disease,' at all. That would be an overly simplistic explanation," Gatz said.

Instead, periodontal disease may be a marker for chronic exposure to disease that provokes an inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation can damage tissue, including the brain, which may contribute to the development of the disease.

"I would think of the periodontal disease as a signpost, not a cause," Gatz said.

Periodontal disease is also linked to general health, she pointed out, and even the inflammatory link to Alzheimer's may involve several factors.

In contrast to other researchers' findings, Gatz and her colleagues did not find that more education or mentally challenging leisure activities reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer's. Many experts and the Alzheimer's Assn. have recommended regular mentally stimulating activities.

The study teased apart the genetic and environmental factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and showed the inflammation link more clearly than any previous research, said Huntington Potter, the Eric Pfeiffer-endowed chair for research on Alzheimer's disease at the University of South Florida.

"This finding reinforces a long-standing appreciation ... that indicated inflammation in the brain was an essential part of the disease process," Potter said.

In other highlights from the Washington, D.C., conference:

* By measuring a decline in glucose metabolism in the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, researchers at New York University School of Medicine were able to predict the development of Alzheimer's disease with 85% accuracy nine years before symptoms appeared.

* Drinking fruit and vegetable juices is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's, said researchers at the University of South Florida, based on a study of 1,800 Japanese Americans. People who drank juice more than three times a week had a 75% reduced risk compared with people who drank juice less than once a week.

* A simple blood test measuring the levels of a protein associated with Alzheimer's may be able to determine whether a person develops the disease in the future, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. Study participants with the lowest levels of the protein had triple the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

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