Another Reason to Brush: Tooth Loss May Mean Later Health Issues

Tooth loss tied to mental decline and slower walking speed in older patients

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Keep that dental hygiene up — losing your teeth could mean you’ll slow down more quickly in old age.

Some changes in memory and walking speed are normal with age. However, new research from the UK found that people who had lost all their teeth performed more poorly in speed walking than people with teeth.

People who had lost all their teeth — the medical term is edentulous — also performed poorly on memory tests compared to those who still had teeth.

The authors of this study said dental health is an important marker for overall health — as well as a public health issue. Patients may benefit from more dental health education, they said.

"Regardless of what is behind the link between tooth loss and decline in function, recognizing excessive tooth loss presents an opportunity for early identification of adults at higher risk of faster mental and physical decline later in their life," said lead study author Georgios Tsakos, PhD, in a press release. "There are many factors likely to influence this decline, such as lifestyle and psychosocial factors, which are amenable to change."

The English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) is a long-term, ongoing study of people age 50 or older who live in English communities. For this study, Dr. Tsakos and team looked at data on 3,166 adults from the ELSA study who were 60 or older.

Dr. Tsakos and colleagues divided the study patients into two groups: those who had lost all of their teeth, and those who still had some or all of their teeth. These researchers adjusted for other factors like chronic disease, depression and smoking, which could also affect memory and walking speed.

These patients were tested for memory with a list of 10 words. They were asked to recall them immediately and again a few minutes later.

Gait speed — how fast a person walks — has previously been found to be a marker of physical health in older adults. Twice, the study patients walked a distance of 8 feet at their usual speed while researchers timed them with a stopwatch.

Dr. Tsakos and team found that edentulous patients recalled fewer words than patients with teeth. The effects of being toothless on memory were most noticeable in patients aged 60 to 74.

Also, people without teeth were more likely to have a slow gait than those who still had teeth.

Tooth loss and dental disease could result from factors like poor nutrition, inflammation and lack of dental care due to poverty. Dr. Tsakos and team noted that tooth loss can be an early warning sign for doctors, enabling them to address health issues before they advance too far.

"Tooth loss could be used as an early marker of mental and physical decline in older age, particularly among 60-74 year-olds," Dr. Tsakos, of the University College London Epidemiology & Public Health department, said. "We find that common causes of tooth loss and mental and physical decline are often linked to socioeconomic status, highlighting the importance of broader social determinants such as education and wealth to improve the oral and general health of the poorest members of society.”

This study was published Dec. 18 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The ELSA study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and a several UK government departments coordinated by the Office for National Statistics. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 21, 2014
Last Updated:
December 23, 2014