Tooth Loss May Be a Signal for Physical Decline and Memory Loss in Older Adults, Researchers Conclude
Friday, February 6, 2015
When it comes to happiness, a smile often says it all. But your grin might also say a lot about your physical and mental wellbeing, according to a new study that looked at links between tooth loss, memory, and walking ability for older people. Based on information from more than 3,000 adults 60-years-old and older, researchers report that people who lose all their teeth face some physical issues and memory problems more often than people who still have at least some of their teeth. As Georgios Tsakos, PhD, lead researcher of the study and a senior lecturer at University College London, explains: “This means that tooth loss might be a signal, or ‘early marker,’ that can help healthcare workers identify people often at risk of memory loss and physical decline and promote positive lifestyle changes beforehand.”
For a variety of reasons, dental problems are common concerns among older adults and their caregivers. Poor vision and difficulty moving arms, wrists, and hands can make it hard for older people to brush and floss properly. We produce less saliva as we age – which can limit our natural ability to keep teeth clean. What’s more, our gums – the tissue and bone structures in the mouth that help keep teeth in place – shrink over time, exposing teeth to food particles and bacteria that can cause infection or decay. In fact, people over 65 with natural teeth actually have more tooth decay than any other age group, and risk tooth loss and poor nutritional habits as a result. And as this new research suggests, tooth loss may also point to other health concerns.
Dr. Tsakos and his colleagues set out to examine the relationship between total tooth loss (also known as “edentulousness”) and physical and cognitive health among a group of 3,166 older adults (1,466 men and 1,700 women all 60-years-old or older) evaluated periodically over a 10-year period as part of a special survey on aging in England. Physical health was determined during each study session by how quickly someone could walk 8 feet at their usual pace. To evaluate mental functioning, study participants were asked to listen to a list of 10 words and recall as many as they could at a later point in time.
On average, total tooth loss was associated with greater likelihood of decline in memory and walking ability in older age. The 837 study participants who had no natural teeth walked slower (0.09 meters-per-second slower) and recalled fewer words (0.88 fewer words) than the 2,329 participants with some natural teeth. These results persisted even as researchers looked into whether other factors (like age, sex, or depression) might explain the difference. Interestingly, the link between complete tooth loss and poor memory and walking ability was strongest among 60-74-year-olds, who experienced more significant declines in physical wellbeing and memory recall throughout the 10-year study period.
While these results support additional evidence linking declines in memory and mobility with dental problems for adults, they only indicate that tooth loss is a signal – not necessarily a cause – of these problems. As the researchers explain, a number of other factors – from poor diet to education and wealth – may help explain why those who have lost their teeth have a decline in physical ability and memory skills later in life. The study also evaluated dental health very broadly between two large groups (those with some teeth and those with none), and it would be useful for future studies to contain data that could be divided even further for more detailed analyses. “Regardless,” notes Dr. Tsakos, “this study highlights how dentists and other health workers can use oral health while someone is still younger to identify people at risk for memory loss and physical problems and to provide them with the tools and resources they need to make changes for the better before it’s too late.”
This summary is based on a full report (“Tooth Loss Associated with Physical and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults”) authored by Georgios Tsakos, PhD, Richard G. Watt, PhD, Patrick L. Rouxel, PhD, Cesar de Oliveira, PhD, and Panayotes Demakakos, PhD, published online in Dec. 2014 by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.