Don’t forget your gums and teeth while planning for old age
By: Dr. Cheah Chia Wei
October marks the celebration of International Day of Older Persons, and it’s noteworthy that Malaysia is unmistakably progressing towards becoming an aging nation. By 2030, it is projected that 15% of our population will be aged 60 or above. Although our life expectancy has significantly increased in comparison to our ancestors, it is imperative that we do not neglect the importance of maintaining good oral health.
It’s essential to understand that premature tooth loss can contribute to accelerated physical and biological aging. Among the leading causes of tooth loss is gum disease, a prevalent concern. Recent research has indicated a strong connection between early tooth loss, particularly when attributed to severe gum disease, and an acceleration in the aging process. While chronological age is determined by the year of birth, biological age reflects the cumulative impact of both positive and negative factors that affect an individual’s susceptibility to diseases.
Severe gum disease, despite manifesting as localized inflammation within the mouth, exerts a significant influence on overall health. The unresolved inflammation that circulates throughout the body results in the accumulation of senescent cells, stem cell depletion, and an accelerated aging of the immune system (immunoaging). This, in turn, leads to the exacerbation of other health issues, especially when coupled with lifestyle factors such as stress and smoking.
A study conducted in Japan demonstrated that individuals with more than 20 natural teeth exhibited superior cognitive function compared to their counterparts with fewer than 19 teeth. Similarly, research among the Chinese population sought to explore the connection between tooth loss and cardiovascular disease and stroke. It revealed that for every 2 teeth lost, there was a 3% higher risk of heart disease. Moreover, a recent publication from the Stomatological Hospital at Southern Medical University in China, published in June of this year, indicated that moderate to severe periodontitis might magnify the correlation between biological aging and all-cause mortality in middle-aged and older adults. The researchers underscored the importance of maintaining and enhancing gum health to decelerate the aging process and extend lifespan.
The immediate consequence of tooth loss is the loss of support for the cheeks. The installation of dentures or dental implants appears to restore the fullness of the cheeks and lips, although not entirely. However, individuals who cannot afford these tooth replacement options may experience compromised eating ability and impaired digestion. The resultant nutritional imbalance can eventually jeopardize one’s overall health.
The loss of multiple teeth not only alters oral anatomy but also results in diminished chewing function. Those affected tend to avoid hard-to-chew foods, leading to reduced muscular activity during mastication, muscle atrophy, and further deterioration in chewing ability. Additionally, the aging process is associated with a generalized loss of muscle mass and function, encompassing the decline in swallowing muscle mass, thereby increasing the risk of choking among the elderly. Therefore, routine professional hygiene care is indispensable for the maintenance of healthy teeth, and it can help enhance chewing muscle mass and function in older individuals.
Hopefully all of these aspects highlight the need to preserve our oral health, as we become older by the day. So, don’t wait, act now to start looking after your gums and teeth, ya?
The author is a Senior Lecturer and Consultant Periodontist at the Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya. She may be reached at [email protected]