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Photo illustration of woman's open mouth with dentist's mirror reflecting teethA Mouthful of Evidence:
Oral Health and Aging

by Debra J. Gibson

Infection, disease and aging are inextricably linked in the human health chain, according to John Novak, associate director of the Center for Oral Health Research at UK. He says infection and disease can affect the aging process, and the reverse is also true. "If you get a lot of infections, your body is constantly being stressed, and that may have an impact on aging. Conversely, the aging process itself may affect your susceptibility to disease," he says.

Backed by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and in collaboration with researchers at the University of Maryland and the NIA, Novak is examining the role of infection and oral health in the aging process. In this work he and his colleagues are using Rhesus monkeys located at the NIA facility in Maryland.

"We're using the oral cavity as a model to allow us to study infection, inflammation and disease by looking at aging primates on a lifetime calorie-restricted diet. Calorie restriction has been clearly demonstrated to decrease the aging process in rodents, and now these studies are being extended to non-human primates before progressing to human studies," says Novak.

The first thing he is looking for is whether these animals have fewer infections and less disease than animals that don't have such calorie restrictions. Then the researchers are going to analyze how these animals respond to infection that leads to inflammation in the mouth and consequent periodontal disease. "Will those calorie-restricted animals, who are not aging as rapidly, respond better than those aging at a normal pace, and how does aging affect the inflammatory response and the disease process?"

Jeffrey Ebersole, director of UK's Center for Oral Health Research, and Karen Novak, John's wife and an associate professor of periodontics, are collaborating on this study.

"People continue to look for aging mechanisms and try to find a magic bullet to prolong life," John Novak says, "but very few people have looked at chronic infection and inflammation as a package contributing to the aging process. We know that as people age, they are susceptible to more infections and certainly the infections and inflammation can put a stress on your body that may lead to premature aging.

"We are excited because we think we will have some major findings to contribute. With collaborative research, you broaden the impact by bringing together a wider range of expertise, and fresh ideas and perspectives."

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