You probably know someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s. This terrifying disease constitutes 70% of all dementia-related deaths, which has quickly become the fifth leading cause of death in the world. But while governments and laboratories have poured money into Alzheimer’s-focused research, many of their studies and theories have come up unsuccessful. That is, until now. This new connection between Alzheimer’s and gum disease may give the scientific community what it needs to find a cure or new innovative treatments for this deadly disease. While it is still early, this new research direction is giving a lot of people a lot of hope.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease and the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s causes sufferers to slowly lose cognitive skills including memory, thinking, and behavior. And although the majority of Alzheimer’s cases are in those 65 and older, nearly 200,000 Americans suffer from early-onset Alzheimer’s (before their 65th birthday). It is a progressive disease, and while there are treatments that could potentially lengthen an individual’s lifespan or slow the onset of symptoms, there is no cure. Not yet, anyway.

What has been done before?

Scientists have known for a while that Alzheimer’s patients usually have a larger buildup of different types of proteins and plaques in the brain. Since 1984, the theory was that Alzheimer’s caused an excess of amyloid and tau protein buildup which led to the creation of sticky plaques in the brain which were presumed to cause the degenerative symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

However, research has come to something of a standstill in regards to treatments which prevent the formation of these proteins and associated plaques. Despite billions of dollars in research, a recent study determined that current Alzheimer’s drug trials and experiments have a 99% rate of failure.

The connection between Alzheimer’s and gum disease

The current state of Alzheimer’s research has led many scientists to start rethinking the otherwise accepted proteins and plaques theory as to the cause of the disease based on the presence of these same proteins and plaques in the brains of people without Alzheimer’s.

The newest theory focuses on the link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. While the connection between gum disease itself as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s is not new, these researchers are making a bigger claim regarding how these two diseases interact. So far, teams of researchers have found that the gum disease-causing bacteria, Porphyromonas gingivalis, can effectively enter the brain in areas that have been negatively affected by Alzheimer’s and can cause neurological damage and brain inflammation (like that of Alzheimer’s) in mice that do not already have the disease.

Although this research is relatively new, the studies that have been published so far are promising. The fact that these conclusions have been drawn from multiple unrelated labs is an excellent starting point. Universities and researchers have published finding P. gingivilas in brain tissue from Alzheimer’s patients, specifically in areas of the brain that deal with memory and cognitive functioning. These findings are pushing some scientists to predict that the presence of this bacteria in the brain could be the cause of Alzheimer’s itself and not just a consequence of a damaged brain. Many researchers still believe that even if this is determined to be a cause of the disease, there may still be contributing or additional causes to be found.

While labs around the world will certainly need more time, money, and work to determine the true cause(s) of Alzheimer’s and to develop potential cures and treatments, this new step is certainly a hopeful one. There may never be one independent cure to this rampant disease, but with each new discovery comes the opportunity to develop a treatment that will someday help someone.