Social isolation among older adults linked to having fewer teeth

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Older adults who are socially isolated are more likely to have missing teeth—and to lose their teeth more quickly over time—than those with more social interaction, according to a new study of Chinese older adults led by a team in the US. 

The findings are published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology.  

“Our study suggests that maintaining and improving social connections may benefit the oral health of older adults,” said Xiang Qi, a PhD student at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the study’s first author. 

“The findings align with previous studies demonstrating that structural indicators of social disconnection can have powerful effects on indicators of health and wellbeing.”

Social isolation and loneliness in older adults are major public health concerns around the world and are risk factors for heart disease, mental health disorders, cognitive decline, and premature death. 

Social isolation and loneliness are related but different. Social isolation is an objective measure defined as having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others, while loneliness is the feeling created by a lack of social connection. 

Older adults are also at risk for another health concern: losing teeth. Gum disease, smoking, lack of access to dental care, and chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease increase the risks of tooth loss. Missing teeth can have a significant impact on one’s quality of life, affecting nutrition, speech, and self-esteem.  

To understand the relationship between social isolation, loneliness, and tooth loss in older adults in China, the researchers used the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey to analyse data from 4268 adults aged 65 and up. The participants completed surveys at three different timepoints (2011-12, 2014, and 2018), which captured measures of social isolation and loneliness, how many teeth people had and lost over the seven-year study, and other factors. 

The researchers found that higher levels of social isolation were associated with having fewer teeth and losing teeth more quickly over time, even when controlling for other factors such as oral hygiene, health status, smoking and drinking, and loneliness. Older adults who were socially isolated had, on average, 2.1 fewer natural teeth and 1.4 times the rate of losing their teeth than those with stronger social ties.

“Socially isolated older adults tend to be less engaged in social and health-promoting behaviours like physical activity, which could have a negative impact on their overall functioning and oral hygiene, as well as increase their risk for systemic inflammation,” senior author Professor Bei Wu said. 

“This functional impairment seems to be a major pathway linking social isolation to tooth loss.”

Surprisingly, loneliness was not associated with the number of remaining teeth, nor with the rate of tooth loss.

“While social isolation can result in a lack of support that can affect health behaviours, for older adults who feel lonely, it’s possible that their social networks are still in place and can help them to keep up healthy behaviours,” Qi added.

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