Ask Oz and Roizen: Distracted Driving and Dementia Related to Gum Disease

Ask Oz and Roizen: Distracted Driving and Dementia Related to Gum Disease

See what the experts have to say regarding these important health topics.

Q: My sister was stopped at a red light and was rear-ended by someone who was texting. She needed spinal surgery as a result. How can we get folks to stop texting and talking on the phone while they’re driving? — Bob Z., Clearwater, FL

A: That’s a far too common story these days. Even though 47 states, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers, there’s still more to be done. The CDC reports that every day in the US, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.

Some places say you cannot text while driving, but you cannot be pulled over for it unless you are also breaking another law, such as speeding. So, folks just ignore the ban. Seems lots of people don’t realize that sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. If you are going 55 miles an hour, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed!

But that doesn’t mean the laws aren’t having a (small) positive effect: Texas A&M researchers looked at 16 states that had texting bans from 2007 through 20014 and found that those places had four percent fewer ER visits due to motor vehicle accidents. The reduction in car accidents was even greater in states where police could pull over folks for texting, even if they weren’t breaking another law.

So, what’s to be done? First, laws prohibiting distracted driving need to be in place and strictly enforced—and causing an accident when you are distracted needs to come with strong penalties. Second, what if the NTSA mandated that when the wheels move, all digital signals inside a car were blocked so you would have to pull over to talk or text? We have the technology to make that happen. Do we have the will?

Q: My sister’s husband is 73-years-old and his teeth and gums are really starting to go. At the same time, it seems he’s starting to experience a little mental slippage. Could the two be related? — Arthur B., Springfield, VA

A: The health of your mouth and the rest of your body are intertwined—especially when you look at the relationship of dental and oral infections to various forms of dementia. You’re right that your brother-in-law’s ailing gums and teeth may play a role in his cognitive decline.

The route is something like this: Oral bacterial infections cause gingivitis, the first-stage of gum disease. Symptoms include swollen or receding gums, easy bleeding and bad breath. That can lead to the more advanced periodontal disease, which affects the gums, teeth and surrounding bone. It may cause loose teeth and painful chewing. That whole process ramps up inflammation, changes your oral biome and spreads bacteria and inflammation throughout your body—including to your brain.

A retrospective study examined South Korean health data from 2005-2015 and found that people with periodontal disease had a six percent higher risk for developing dementia than people who didn’t have those oral health problems. The researchers also looked at data from the US National Health Information Database and postulated that decreasing prevalence of dementia risk factors such as chronic periodontitis by 20 percent could reduce the prevalence of dementia in 2050 by more than 15 percent.

One theory is that bacteria in oral plaque that fuels periodontitis enter the bloodstream and then cross the blood/brain barrier. There, they cause inflammation of brain tissue and possibly the development of toxic proteins, which could build-up over time and lead to the development of dementias, such as Alzheimer’s.

So, if you can talk to your sister or brother in-law about getting medical care for his teeth and gums you may help slow his decline. Antibiotics can control or cure periodontitis, along with conscientious brushing, flossing and regular teeth cleanings.

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