A recent study carried out by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of nursing aimed to assess the link between social isolation and dental health in older adults if any. The following study saw the participation of Chinese older adults. It focused primarily on general social isolation and its impact on oral health. The study concluded that socially isolated adults were often more likely to have missing teeth and were also susceptible to poor oral health. Social isolated older adults lose their teeth sooner than adults with an active social life. These findings can also be found in the Journal of Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology.
Xiang Qi, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at NYU Meyers, explains how social isolation and loneliness in older adults are becoming significant public health concerns worldwide. Social isolation is a known risk factor for various health complications such as heart diseases, mental health disorders, and cognitive decline, and it can also be linked to premature death.
According to World Health Organization, in many countries, especially in developed countries, one in every three older adults confess to feeling lonely. In the last two years, the lockdown owing to the pandemic has further cut down any remaining in-person interaction due to preventive and has seemed to worsen the situation.
Although the terms social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably they are, in reality, very different from each other. Social isolation is objective and loneliness is subjective. Social isolation is defined as having less or almost no social connection. On the other hand, loneliness is a feeling that may or may not result from social isolation. A person can feel lonely even when they are surrounded by a group of people.
Bei Wu, Dean’s Professor in Global Health at NYU Meyers and the study’s senior author further explains how social isolation and loneliness often go hand in hand but there are instances where one can live alone and be socially isolated but not feel lonely. Whereas, in some cases, one may be surrounded by people but still feel lonely.
Apart from systemic health disorders, socially isolated older adults are also at a greater risk of losing teeth. On average, older adults, in the age range of 65 to 74 have fewer than 23 teeth. A healthy adult is known to have 32 teeth. There are four wisdom teeth and their removal is a usual occurrence these days and that’s why the average number of teeth considered is 28. It was reported that 4.5% of people in the following age group were missing all their teeth. The most common reason for teeth loss was attributed to gum diseases, dental decay, smoking, chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart diseases, and lack of access to proper dental care.
Tooth loss has deleterious effects on a person’s overall well-being as it affects nutrition, speech, and facial aesthetics, affecting self-confidence.
The data in this study was collected through the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey. The authors analyzed the data collected from over 4,268 adults between the age of 65 to 74 years. Authors studied the social status and number of present teeth in every adult. The participants were given a questionnaire which they had to fill over three different time points that are; 2011-12, 2014, and 2018. The questionnaire was created to captivate different measures of social isolation and loneliness and the number of teeth people had lost for the duration of the study which is 7 years.
27.5% of participants in the study were classified as socially isolated while 26.5% of the older adults suffered from loneliness. A higher degree of social isolation was seen to be associated with a smaller number of teeth. The percentage remained constant even when other risk factors like poor oral hygiene, systemic disorder, smoking and drinking, and loneliness were controlled. This further gave the researchers added proof that social isolation indeed influenced the number of teeth present. Adults who were socially isolated had 2.1 fewer natural teeth and a 1.4 times greater rate of tooth loss compared to older adults with satisfactory social lives.
These results can be explained by the fact that socially isolated older adults often do not engage in social and health-promoting behaviours such as physical activity. These factors have a negative impact on overall functioning and also on the oral hygiene of a person. It further increases their risk of suffering from systemic illnesses like heart diseases. This paves the way for further tooth loss.
It was found that loneliness was not associated with the number of remaining teeth or with the rate of tooth loss. This may be because a lonely person may still have an intact social circle and support even whereas social isolation leads to a lack of support which affects functionality.
The present study’s findings are highly relevant in many countries apart from China, like the US. Social isolation is on its way to becoming a concerning global issue and dentists it is our moral duty to highlight the benefits of social interaction and make added efforts to encourage the importance of generational support within families and help older adults lead an active social life by reinforcing peerage.
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.