Tooth Loss an Early Marker for Decline Later in Life

A new study from the United Kingdom has further shown how oral health is closely linked to overall well being, especially in relation to older adults. The research, recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and discussed in a Medical News Today article, was conducted by a team from University College London, where they analyzed data from over 3,100 adults aged 60 and over living in England. In general, the analysis led to a conclusion that tooth loss may be an early marker of mental and physical decline in older age.

The data used in the study came from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA). The previously collected information allowed the researchers to compare test scores in memory and walking speed of participants who had none of their own teeth versus those who had some natural teeth. The analysis showed that those who had lost all of their natural teeth performed approximately 10% worse in both memory and walking assessments as those with natural teeth. The connection between total tooth loss and poor memory performance became insignificant when other factors were taken into account, such as age, gender, smoking, drinking, depression, physical health, and socioeconomic status. However, the link between tooth loss and slower walking speed remained significant, even after all other influencers were considered.

Lead author Dr. Georgios Tsakos, of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, says that the causes of tooth loss and mental and physical decline are often connected to socioeconomic status, claiming that “the importance of broader social determinants such as education and wealth to improve the oral and general health of the poorest members of society,” are critical. Regardless of the underlying reasons for tooth loss, the research suggests that by noticing excessive tooth loss in adults can give us a chance to spot those at higher risk of faster decline later in life. Lifestyle and psychosocial factors often contribute to tooth loss, but are able to be changed and often reversed if caught early enough.

In August of 2014, the International and American Associations for Dental Research published a paper that showed great progress in the decline of tooth loss in the US over the last 5 decades, but the contrast between the rich and poor is actually stronger. Total tooth loss is very rare in high-income households in the US, but is seen more often in geographical areas with disproportionately high poverty. The most common cause of tooth loss is periodontal or gum disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that about 50% of US adults have some form of gum disease, but the prevalence is much higher in those living below the poverty line (over 65%). They also note that it is higher among those with less than a high school education (nearly 67%), and among older Americans (around 70%).

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