How and Why our Gums Age
How and Why our Gums Age
Periodontitis or inflammation of the gums is a very common dental problem among older people. In periodontitis, the tissues surrounding the teeth become overreactive to oral bacteria, mounting an inflammatory response which soon shrinks the gums and leads to tooth and bone loss.
Inflammation—of the gums or of any other part of the body—is really one of the body’s protective mechanisms against infection and injury. When the body senses an infectious microorganism or a foreign substance, the affected part launches an inflammatory response in which there is increased blood flow to the site of infection or injury. The surge of blood flow serves to deliver more white blood cells and other substances to combat infection and promote healing. The site of increased blood flow becomes red, swollen, hot and tender—the hallmark of inflammation.
When the infection is sufficiently contained by the defensive white blood cells recruited to the site by the localized inflammatory response, inflammation subsides and resolves spontaneously. Such is the case with most inflammation cases. However, with chronic infection or persistent injury, inflammation may not subside and becomes persistent. When the gums are persistently inflamed, the surrounding tissues and underlying bones which support the teeth become affected as well, a condition known as Periodontitis. If left untreated, periodontitis could cause loosening of the teeth and eventually, loss of teeth.
For years, dental professionals have been puzzled as to why the gums of older people are more susceptible to this periodic inflammation. Today, advances in dental research are slowly shedding light on the specific cause behind this extremely common age-related dental problem.
Research conducted by Queen Mary University of London, in collaboration with USA-based research groups, has pinpointed the culprit behind geriatric periodontitis as the sharp reduction in the levels of a chemical known as Del-1 among the aging population.
The study which was published in Nature Immunology made use of laboratory mice. The results showed that the incidence of periodontitis in older mice is higher than in the younger ones. Moreover, the higher incidence of periodontitis in older mice was accompanied by a drop in the levels of Del-1. The association between periodontitis and Del-1 reduction is even more pronounced with the finding that mice which virtually had no Del-1 exhibited severe gum disease and bone loss. The researchers reached the consensus that understanding the nature of Del-1 would prove useful in the treatment and prevention of age-related periodontitis.
Del-1 is a protein which calms down the inflammatory response, thereby alleviating the symptoms of periodontitis. Del-1 tones down the inflammatory response by preventing white blood cells from sticking to and mounting an attack against the tissues of the mouth. The findings of the study showed that when mice were treated with Del-1, the white blood cell count in the oral tissues took a plunge, thus taming inflammation and preventing oral bone and tooth loss.
Mike Curtis, lead researcher in the microbiological studies of the said study and professor of microbiology at Queen Mary, University of London, excitedly announced, “This research sheds some light on why ageing makes us more susceptible to periodontitis and understanding this mechanism is the first step to an effective treatment.”
Very soon, older people may no longer resign themselves to the prospect of losing their teeth and wearing those ill-fitting and often off-smelling dentures. With just a dose of Del-1, we can say goodbye to periodontitis.