Tooth loss may predict the development of dementia late in life, according to a study by University of Kentucky researchers.

The researcher, led by Pamela Sparks Stein in the UK College of Medicine's Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, used data collected from 144 participants in the Nun Study, a study of aging and Alzheimer's disease among Catholic sisters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

"Of the participants who did not have dementia at the first examination (of annual exams over a 12-year period), those with few teeth zero to nine had an increased risk of developing dementia during the study, compared with those who had 10 or more teeth," the researchers reported in a paper published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA). The researchers relied on dental records and annual cognitive exams of the Nun Study participants in the order's Milwaukee province. The participants' ages ranged from 75 to 98 years old.

Numerous past studies have shown that patients with dementia are more likely to have poor dental health than patients without dementia. Few researchers, however, have examined whether poor oral health may contribute to the development of dementia.

The UK research team which includes Mark Desrosiers of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, Sara Jean Donegan of the Marquette University School of Dentistry, Juan F. Yepes of the UK colleges of Dentistry and Medicine, and Richard J. Kryscio, chair of the Department of Biostatistics in the UK College of Public Health proposes several possible reasons for the association between tooth loss and dementia, including periodontal disease and early-life nutritional deficiencies, infections or chronic diseases that may result simultaneously in tooth loss and brain damage.

The researchers caution that further study is needed to confirm whether tooth loss has any real role in bringing on dementia. "It is not clear from our findings whether the association is causal or casual," they write, urging further study.

JADA, a monthly journal, is the ADA's flagship publication and the best-read scientific journal in dentistry.

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