Establishing how oral health and dementia are linked could point to better prevention and care.
Chenyi Gao’s interest in dementia has been growing ever since she volunteered at a care home. When her grandmother experienced cognitive decline after cancer surgery, it only deepened.
‘Instances of forgetting the time, names of family members, and struggling with simple calculations worried me that she might soon receive a dementia diagnosis,’ says Chenyi.
In response, my family and I have been actively implementing preventive measures, such as encouraging increased physical activity and engaging in small logic games with her.
Chenyi is researching the link between oral health and dementia in her PhD at the University of Leeds.
While existing evidence underscores the association between oral health factors and cognitive decline, establishing a concrete causal link has remained elusive.
Jing Kang, principal investigator on this research, says, ‘It’s time to integrate oral health into the broader context of one’s health, and we know prevention is the key.’
Chenyi’s research, funded by Alzheimer’s Society, aims to find evidence about whether conditions like gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss contribute to the onset of dementia.
She’s using a technique called Mendelian randomisation. This looks at genetic variations to check whether one thing actually causes another, or if they simply occur together for other reasons.
‘Given that genetic information is determined before birth and is largely impervious to modification by environment or lifestyle, this method provides a robust foundation for investigating causal relationships,’ says Chenyi.
The research draws on existing large data sources like the UK Biobank and US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Small steps, big impact
If there is a causal link between oral diseases and dementia risk, this will point to practical ways to slow or even stop cognitive decline. For example, by catching and treating gum disease early.
The ultimate goal is to raise awareness of oral health issues for the prevention of dementia.
‘People living with dementia may often experience compromised oral health due to diminished abilities to maintain daily oral hygiene or receive adequate care,’ says Chenyi.
‘Small steps, such as maintaining regular oral hygiene, can have a profound impact on overall wellbeing.’
Source of inspiration
As well as funding, the Society has supported Chenyi to connect with other dementia researchers in the UK and Europe, and to develop her career at this crucial early stage.
We also supported her collaboration with US researchers, meaning her project has had an international impact.
Importantly, it’s also meant meeting more people living with and tackling dementia.
‘This unique experience has been a profound source of inspiration, fostering a deeper understanding of how my research can directly benefit the public and those affected by dementia,’ she says.
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