A group of researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing led a study to see if there is any link between social isolation and dental health in older adults. The study was carried out on Chinese older adult with its prime focus being on social isolation and its impact on oral health. At the end of the study, it was concluded that isolated older adults have fewer teeth and are prone to poor oral health. Social isolated older adults were seen to lose their teeth more early on than compared to adults with a satisfactory social life. The authors also published their findings in Journal of Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology.

Xiang Qi, PhD student at NYU Meyers is the lead author of the study. They tell us how social isolation and loneliness in older adults are coming out as notable public health concerns around the world. Social isolation is also a known risk factor for various ailments like heart diseases, mental health disorders, cognitive decline, and can it is also linked premature death.

According to World Health Organization, one in every three older adults, in many countries like the US report to feeling lonely in their life. In addition, for the last two years, social and in-person interactions have further been cut down owing to the pandemic which has worsened the situation.

Many times, we may use the terms social isolation and loneliness interchangeably, however, in reality, these two are very different from each other. Social isolation is an objective measure and is defined as a state where a person has less or no social connections. On the other hands, loneliness is subjective and defined as a feeling which may or may not be the result of social isolation.

Bei Wu, Dean’s Professor in Global Health at NYU Meyers and the study’s senior author further explains how social isolation and loneliness differ. These two may go hand in hand but there are instances where one can live alone and be social isolated but not feel lonely. Whereas, a person can feel lonely even when they are surrounded by a group of people.

Apart from systemic health disorders, socially isolated older adults are found to be at an increased risk of losing teeth. On an average, older adults, in the age range of 65 to 74 have fewer than 23 teeth. A healthy adult is has 32 teeth. This number includes four wisdom teeth. However, wisdom tooth removal has become quite common these days and that’s  why the average number of teeth considered in 28. 4.5% of people in the following age has lost all their teeth. The most common reason for missing teeth was gum diseases, dental decay, smoking, chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart diseases, and lack of access to oral health care.

Tooth loss has deleterious effects on a person’s overall well-being as it affects nutrition, speech, and facial aesthetics which in turn affects self-confidence.

This data was acquired through Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey. The authors assessed the data collected from over 4,268 adults between the age 65 to 74 years. The social status and number of present teeth in every adult was analyzed. The participants were required to take a survey at three different time points (2011-12, 2014, and 2018). The survey was carefully drafted to inculcate different measures of social isolation and loneliness and the number of teeth people had lost for the duration of the study that is, 7 years.

27.5% of participants in the study came out as socially isolated while 26.5% of the older adults reported to being lonely. Higher degree of social isolation was linked with the presence of less the number of teeth. These findings remained constant even when other factors like poor oral hygiene, systemic disorder, smoking and drinking, and loneliness were controlled. This further solidified the hypothesis and gave concrete conclusion that social isolation indeed influenced the number of teeth present. Socially isolated older adults had 2.1 fewer natural teeth and 1.4 times greater rate of tooth loss compared to ones with satisfactory and active social lives.

These results can be demystified by the fact that socially isolated older adults do not engage in social and health-promoting behaviors such as physical activity which can have a negative impact overall functioning and also on the oral hygiene of a person. It also adds to their risk of suffering from other health disorders like heart diseases and paves a way further tooth loss.

The authors also tell us that their study did not find any link between loneliness and the number of remaining teeth or rate of tooth loss. This may be because a lonely person may still have an intact social circle and support which promotes healthy behaviors whereas social isolation leads to lack of support which affects functionality as there is no one to check on them.

The results of this study are relevant in other countries like the US as well. Social isolation is becoming a global issue and dentists it is our moral duty to highlight the benefits of social interaction. Added steps must also be take to enforce peerage and help older adults lead a social and full-filed life for betterment of their oral and overall health.

DISCLAIMER: The advice offered is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. It is in no way offering a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendations for your particular situation. Any advice offered is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified dentist.