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Gum disease may increase the risk of white matter hyperintensities, a type of brain lesion.

White matter hyperintensities are brain lesions that appear as intense white spots on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. They are often indicators of cerebral small blood vessel disease and are considered a risk factor for dementia. High blood pressure is the primary contributor to white matter hyperintensity formation, but other factors likely play roles, as well. Findings from a 2020 study suggest that periodontitis is associated with white matter hyperintensities.

Periodontitis is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gums, characterized by red, tender, swollen, or bleeding gums. It is typically caused by poor oral hygiene and is more common with age, manifesting in more than two-thirds of adults over the age of 65 years. Periodontitis is diagnosed using a periodontal probe, which is used to assess the depth of pockets in the gum. In a healthy mouth, a pocket can be anywhere from 1 to 3 millimeters deep. Deeper pockets are indicators of gum inflammation and disease.

The study involved more than 400 adults (average age, 54 years) who underwent a routine dental exam that included pocket depth probing. The investigators performed MRI scans on the participants to identify the presence of white matter hyperintensities, which were classified according to their size, number, and severity. They gathered information about the participants' general health and lifestyles and measured their C-reactive protein (CRP, a biomarker of inflammation). They found that nearly half of the participants had white matter hyperintensities. Those who did were nearly three times more likely to be at least 65 years old, more than twice as likely to have elevated systolic blood pressure, and nearly twice as likely to have deeper pocket depth (6 millimeters or more). Having white matter hyperintensities was not associated with the participants' CRP levels.

These findings suggest that older age, elevated blood pressure, and periodontitis are associated with an increased risk of developing white matter hyperintensities, but inflammation is not a driver of this association. Evidence indicates that white matter hyperintensities are predictive of the amount and degree of leakage of the blood-brain barrier leakage. Learn more in our overview article.

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