Older adults who experience social isolation are more likely to lose their teeth than counterparts with stronger social networks. The corresponding study was published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology by researchers in the US and China.
Social isolation and loneliness lead to multiple negative health outcomes among older adults. These include mental health disorders, cognitive decline, and risk factors for heart disease.
While they often occur together, social isolation and loneliness are different conditions. While social isolation is having few social relationships or infrequent contact with others, loneliness involves feeling a lack of social connection and thus may happen even if surrounded by people.
In the present study, the researchers analyzed three waves of data from 2011-2021, 2014, and 2019 from the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey. The data included 4,268 participants aged 65 and above who were interviewed in at least two of the waves. The researchers collected information on the number of teeth each person had alongside measures on social isolation, loneliness, and other demographic factors. Among the participants, 27.5% reported being socially isolated, and 26.5%: lonely.
From the analysis, the researchers found that older adults who were socially isolated had 2.1 fewer natural teeth and a 1.4 times faster rate of toothloss than adults with stronger social networks. Feeling lonely, however, had little bearing on tooth loss. These results remained after adjusting for potential confounding factors such as lifestyle, oral hygiene behaviors, physical and cognitive health.
“Socially isolated older adults tend to be less engaged in social and health-promoting behaviors like physical activity, which could have a negative impact on their overall functioning and oral hygiene, as well as increase their risk for systemic inflammation,” said Bei Wu, senior author of the study, “This functional impairment seems to be a major pathway linking social isolation to tooth loss.”
“While social isolation can result in a lack of support that can affect health behaviors, for older adults who feel lonely, it’s possible that their social networks are still in place and can help them to keep up healthy behaviors,” added Xiang Qi, first author of the study.
The researchers say that the findings are likely relevant beyond China given the global prevalence of social isolation. They also say that their findings highlight the need to create programs that foster intergenerational support within families and to support local communities that focus on improving social connections among the elderly.