Did you know that one of the fastest growing aging populations in the worls is Taiwan? It is.. by 2026, over 20% of its population will be over 65. And that surge in its “senior” populations will greatly increase its medical costs, especially for taking care of patients with dementia. Because of that Taiwan began a new program to help reduce some of the impact. The name of the project translated into English is “Happy Chewing, Healthy Aging”.
At first hearing that seems like an odd name, doesn’t it? Well it turns out to be right on target… because the goal of the project or initiative is to get older adults to improve their oral health, getting them to eat more crunchy and more nutritious foods, to routinely practice good oral hygiene, and oral exercises. But the oddest recommendation of all from the Taiwan medical authorities is their encouraging seniors to chew sugar-free gum to prevent dementia! You read that right… chewing sugar-free gum to prevent dementia!
It was a small study, but obviously convincing enough to the medical people to launch this effort to get seniors to do it.
The study was conducted at the Yang-Ming University School of Dentistry led by Professor Hsu Ming-lun.
The dentists conducting the study compared 40 people over 65 years of age who had either mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s to a control group of 30 healthy people. The study participants underwent brain scans and assessments of their teeth and chewing ability.
In the control group of healthy people increased chewing ability was linked to a larger volume of grey matter in the pre-motor cortex of the brain, which helps to control muscle movement.
The participants in the MCI/Alzheimer’s group with the poorest chewing ability had less total grey matter in the brain. Regional grey matter was smaller in the left temporal lobe, including the left hippocampus and Para hippocampus — all of which are key areas for memory. The researchers said that the bottom line was that the better the people in the study could chew, the less their brains degenerated.
The researchers also conducted some experiments on rodents. They gave one group of rodents a liquid diet, and the other group was fed their normal solid food. After 6 weeks the rodents getting the liquid diet had 40% less cognitive function than the solid food group.
Professor Hsu explained that the change in chewing habits and its link to aging by pointing out that young people chew and swallow instinctively because they rely on their cerebellum, which is involved with movement and co-ordination. But as people age, they need to think while eating, and rely more on the cerebrum which is needed for multiple brain functions. He added that the loss of skeletal muscle mass quality and strength that occurs with aging highlights the need to train the muscles needed for chewing and swallowing, otherwise those too will degenerate. Strengthening those muscles also reduces the risk of aspiration pneumonia which is a common and potentially fatal lung condition that affects older adults and is brought on by inhaling foods and liquids.
Taiwan’s public health programs to promote the importance of chewing for brain health is pretty unique, however studies of chewing and brain health have been conducted by others for more than a decade. In 2017 Japanese researchers did a review of such studies that were published between 2005 and 2015. Of the 23 studies that met their criteria, 20 of them found a link between poorer mastication and lower cognition. In another 10 studies, 8 of them found poorer mastication was a significant risk factor for having MCI or dementia. Other brain scan studies show chewing increases blood flow to the brain and activates various brain regions including those “strongly involved with learning and memory”. So it seems eating crunchy foods like nuts and apples is a good idea, as well as brushing teeth regularly and seeing the dentist regularly to keep your own teeth as long as possible.