Ages 65 & Over: Stay More Socially Involved With A Healthy Smile.

Posted on Feb 09, 2022 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Science has shown that the act of smiling gives a boost to our mood. Even a “fake” smile triggers endorphins (feel-good chemicals) in the brain to release, providing a bit of a “natural high.”

There are many things that make us smile. Time spent with friends, family, and social activity are helpful in keeping an individual active and involved, and hopefully smiling. Unfortunately, older adults are more prone to social isolation. This has proven to be unhealthy, mentally, physically and yes, even for the health of a smile.

Older adults are already at a disadvantage when it comes to having a healthy, full smile. Some estimates show that over one-quarter (26 percent) of adults ages 65 and older have 8 or less remaining natural teeth. About 17 percent in this same age category are missing all of their teeth.

On a positive note, total tooth loss (being “fully edentulous”) in the 65 or older category is decreasing. When comparing the 5-year periods of 1999–2004 to 2011–2016, it dropped by nearly 30 percent.

However, tooth loss comes with many frustrations, and even embarrassment. Many adults who wear dentures or partial dentures to replace missing teeth have similar complaints: sore spots on tender gum tissues, difficulty biting or chewing, slips while speaking or laughing, discomfort and the fear of embarrassment.

These frustrations often lead to (1) a change in diet; and (2) less social involvement. When certain foods become too difficult to chew properly, adults often alter their diet, opting for softer foods that dissolve easily in the mouth. Unfortunately, these foods typically lack in protein and fiber needed for good health.

Too, improper chewing is challenging to the digestive system. It is no wonder that denture wearers have more gastrointestinal problems and take more medications than people who still have their natural teeth.

Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to numerous measures of health and well-being. One interesting study focused specifically on the effects of social isolation and loneliness in relationship to oral health.

The Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey was conducted in three time segments: 2011-12, 2014 and 2018. The purpose of the study was to asssess the effects of social isolation and loneliness on the rate of tooth loss.

Data of the survey was evaluated, with nearly 4300 adults 65 and older who were participants in at least two of the time segments. The findings showed that, as tooth loss increased, so did social isolation. This study provided strong evidence that social isolation was associated with fewer remaining teeth and even accelerated the pace of tooth loss.

This problem is not just one of our current 65+ age group. According to the U.S. Census, the number of American adults aged 65 years or older is expected to reach 98 million by 2060, making up nearly one-quarter of the overall population. This means that a 30-year-old today will be well within this age group in less than 40 years.

Currently, the poorest oral health in Americans 65 and over are those who are economically disadvantaged, have no insurance, smoke, and in racial and ethnic minorities. Additional factors are being disabled, homebound, or who live in nursing homes. After retirement, some adults lose insurance benefits and find that Medicare does not cover routine dental care.

A high percentage of older adults also have periodontal (gum) disease, the nation’s leading cause of adult tooth loss. Nearly 68 percent of adults aged 65 years or older have some level of gum disease. While nearly 1 in 5 older adults have lost all of their teeth, total tooth loss is twice as prevalent for adults ages 75 and older compared with the 65-74 age group.

Aging also increases the likelihood of developing oral cancer. Oral and pharyngeal cancers are primarily diagnosed in older adults at a median age of 62 years. Gum disease also increases risks of chronic diseases including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

All of these challenges are why a periodontist can be instrumental in the health and well-being of adults, especially those in the “older” age groups.

A periodontist is a dental specialist who receives 4 years of undergraduate training at a college or university and goes on to earn a dental doctorate. After 4 years of dental school, they further their education for another 3-4 years before completing stringent requirements for a specialty certification in periodontics.

A periodontist begins by accurately diagnosing the stage of gum disease present, or if it does exist. Many people are surprised by its presence since it can exist without obvious signs or symptoms.

From there, we develop a customized treatment plan based upon factors such as the patient’s current overall health, their diet, medications, whether they smoke or drink alcohol, and their age. We also discuss sedation options if dental fear is a concern.

Treatment recommendations are made based on what will effectively resolve existing problems without over-treating or under-treating. By restoring the patient to good oral health, we are able to help many avoid tooth loss and rid their mouths (and thus, their bodies) from an overload of oral bacteria.

Periodontists also specialize in the diagnosis and placement of dental implants. They are trained to understand all the intricate concepts involved in selecting the proper type of implant. Additionally, they are skilled at placing implants at proper depths and angles. As they oversee your “healing” time, periodontists are able to optimize your comfort and outcome.

When tooth loss begins, replacing that tooth with a dental implant is highly advised. Dental implants are designed to last a lifetime and restore biting and chewing comfort and stability. Additionally, the stimulation they provide to the jaw bone helps to halt bone loss.

This is because the implanted portion, held by the jaw bone, recreates the presence of the natural tooth roots you once had. While a denture or partial is positioned on top of the gum tissues, dental implants have the advantage of the jaw bone as their foundation, just as natural teeth.

For those who feel they are “too old” for dental implants, many of our implant patients are well into their 80’s or 90’s.  Keep in mind that today’s adults are staying in the workplace longer, staying active in senior years, and living longer. Since 1950, Americans added over 11 years to average life expectancy, to age 79, according to 2019 statistics.

At every age, your smile reflects you, and should be a positive reflection throughout your lifetime. If you are experiencing tooth loss, let’s discuss halting the process during a consultation appointment in our comfortable Asheville periodontal dental office.

Call 828-274-9440 to schedule an appointment.

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