Recently, a study was conducted by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing on older adults to assess if there is a link between social isolation and dental health. The study was conducted among Chinese older adults and focused on general social well-being and its impact on dental health. The study revealed that socially isolated adults were more likely to have missing teeth, were predisposed to poor dental health, and lost their teeth more quickly over time. These findings were also published in the reputed Journal of Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology.

A Ph.D. student at NYU Meyers and the lead author of the study, Xiang Qi, sheds light on how social isolation and loneliness in older adults are becoming major public health concerns worldwide. These factors also seem to be significant risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, mental health disorders, cognitive decline, and premature death.

According to World Health Organisation, one in three older adults tend to be lonely in many countries like China and the United States. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has further cut down any remaining in-person interaction due to preventive lockdowns.

Social isolation and loneliness can be easily thought to be related but are different from each other. Social isolation is an objective measure, it is characterized by having fewer social relations or restricted social contact with other people. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a feeling that can come up owing to a lack of social connection.

Bei Wu, Dean’s Professor in Global Health at NYU Meyers and the study’s senior author elaborate on their study’s result to clarify it. They infer that although social isolation and loneliness often go hand in hand 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.

Socially isolated older adults also seem to be at more risk of losing teeth. On average, people in China, in the age range of 65 to 74 have fewer than 23 teeth on an average. A healthy average adult will have 28 teeth + 4 wisdom teeth, that is 32 teeth. Wisdom tooth removal is quite common these days and that’s why the average number of teeth considered is 28. It was reported that 4.5% of people in the said age group had lost all their teeth. Dental infections such as gum diseases, and dental decay combined with ill habits such as smoking, chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart diseases, and lack of access to dental further increase the risk of tooth loss.

Living with missing teeth can be extremely difficult. It has a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. Teeth loss affects nutrition, speech and facial aesthetics which in turn affect self-confidence.

The researchers took the help of the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey to study data from 4,268 adults aged 65 and up to understand the connection between social isolation, loneliness, and tooth loss in older adults. The participants were given a survey to complete at three different time points (2011-12, 2014, and 2018). The survey was formulated to capture measures of social isolation and loneliness and the number of teeth people had lost in the 7 years of study.

The results were quite concerning as 27.5% of participants came out to be socially isolated and 26.5% reported feeling lonely. It was seen that a high level of social isolation is indeed associated with the presence of fewer teeth. This percentage remained constant even when other factors such as oral hygiene, health status, smoking and drinking, and loneliness were controlled. On average, adults who were socially isolated were seen to have 2.1 fewer natural teeth and a 1.4 times greater rate of loss when compared to those with appreciable social life.

This can be attributed to the fact that socially isolated older adults tend to be less engaged in social and health-promoting behaviours such as physical activity. These things negatively impact overall functioning and oral hygiene and increase their risk of suffering from systemic illnesses. This form of functional impairment was found to be a major gateway that linked social isolation to greater tooth loss.

As a perplexing outcome, the authors found out that loneliness was not associated with the number of remaining teeth or with the rate of tooth loss. This can be explained by the fact that social isolation leads to a lack of support which affects functionality whereas, people who feel lonely still have an intact social network which still aids in ensuring proper functioning and enable healthy behaviour.

The findings of the present study are relevant to many countries beyond China, especially, the US. Social isolation is on its way to becoming a global issue. As healthcare professionals, it is our duty to highlight the benefits of social interaction and make added efforts to encourage the importance of generational support within families and improve older adults’ social well-fare and circle.

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.