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Tooth Loss in Elderly People Indicates Bigger Physical, Mental Issues

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Looks like losing teeth is more serious than it appears.

According to researchers from University College London, tooth loss may be an indicator of more severe mental and physical decline in people. Their study involved over 3,000 individuals aged 60 years old and up, each one subjected to walking and memory tests. And based on these tests, those who still had at least some teeth performed 10 percent better than their counterparts who no longer had any teeth.

Researchers believe the association between better performances in the tests and having teeth is mostly a result of behaviors that affected dental and overall health in general, like smoking and drinking. Those who still had their teeth were simply healthier, allowing them to perform better in the tests. However, the researchers did not discount the fact that tooth loss and reduced mobility can be explained by several other factors.

Published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics on Dec. 19, the study may be used by doctors in predicting physical and mental decline in senior adults.

"Tooth loss could be used as an early marker of mental and physical decline in older age, particularly among 60-74 year-olds," said Dr. Georgios Tsakos, an epidemiology and public health senior lecturer from UCL and the study's lead author.

He explained, however, that common causes of physical and mental decline, as well as tooth loss, are often connected to socioeconomic concerns. This highlights the importance of a wider social understanding of the subjects to note the role that wealth and education play in improving the dental and overall health of poor members of society.

"[But] regardless of what is behind the link between tooth loss and decline in function, recognizing excessive tooth loss presents an opportunity for early intervention of adults at higher risk of faster mental and physical decline later in life," Tsakos added.

Previous studies have explored the correlation between mental decline and dental health, suggesting that those who regularly brushed their teeth and visited the dentist were likelier to avoid dementia, although direct causation has not been proven.

Titled "Tooth Loss Associated with Physical and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults," the study was co-authored by Panayotes Demakakos, Ph.D., Patrick Rouxel, Ph.D., and Richard Watt, Ph.D. It received funding support from grants from the Office for National Statistics and the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

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