Gum disease is so common that it could accurately be described as an epidemic — as many as 85% of U.S. adults have some form of the disease. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize they have the condition, and those who do often brush it off as not a big deal.

Conversely, Alzheimer’s affects roughly 5 million Americans, with that number projected to reach 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s also the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., causing more than breast and prostate cancer combined.[1] Rightfully so, it is a leading concern to many, especially those who are older or who are caring for older relatives.

You may ask why these two conditions are being brought up in the same conversation. According to new research, having advanced gum disease may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.[2][3] Though more studies need to be done to understand the definitive link between periodontitis and Alzheimer’s, the current research shows those with chronic gum disease for 10+ years increased their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 70%.[4]

Researchers have hypothesized that bacteria in the mouth due to gum disease may travel to the brain, triggering the body’s immune system to attack, which in turn kills brain cells. The diminishing number of brain cells leads to confusion and memory loss.[5] In a recent study, researchers examined brain samples of 10 people with Alzheimer’s and 10 without; four of those with Alzheimer’s had gum disease bacteria present in their samples compared to none from the pool of non-Alzheimer’s samples.[6]

One thing’s for certain — screening for gum disease and getting treated should be a top priority for everyone. In addition to treating your oral health, you may also have a positive impact on your overall health. With this new suggestion that gum disease may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s, the systemic connection between oral health and the rest of the body continues to gain credence. Beyond Alzheimer’s, gum disease has links to cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and more.

November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and though Gum Disease Awareness Month is still some time away (in February), it’s important to be aware of the role keeping our teeth and gums healthy can play in not only the appearance of our smiles, but may also prevent an early death. Go get your gum health check-up and see what you can do to help prevent both Alzheimer’s and gum disease.