The very real connection between tooth loss and health

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Tooth loss is something that affects us all. Every one of us experiences it in childhood as those ‘baby teeth’ begin to fall out and make way for our ‘adult’ or permanent teeth. For some of us this is the end of the matter, but for many, tooth loss occurs again later in life – but this time without the option of having a new tooth grow back in.

But how much of a problem is tooth loss? Other than having to keep your lips pursed in the family photos, is a gap in your smile really something to worry about? I’m afraid to say that yes, the long-term effects of untreated tooth loss go far beyond the aesthetics, with the potential to have quite a serious impact on your overall health.

In fact, unsightly gaps may well be the least of your worries, as tooth loss extends its reach far and wide, affecting different functions of your body. Let’s take a look then at three of the key issues that highlight the very real connection between tooth loss and health.

Heart health

There are countless studies which point to clear links between tooth loss and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A recent research paper by the American Academy of Periodontology showed people who suffer from gum disease – which leads to tooth loss – are almost twice as likely to have or go on to have heart disease. One study in particular found that the presence of common oral health issues – such as gingivitis, cavities and missing teeth – are just as good at foretelling heart disease as a person’s cholesterol levels.

Similar research was conducted by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it too came to the same conclusion. Having studied 40,000 adults aged 40 to 79 over a three-year period, the scientists observed a ‘significant association’ between tooth loss and the prevalence of heart disease – going so far as to suggest that good oral health maintenance should be included when educating people on how to prevent cardiovascular issues.

Bone loss and facial disfigurement

Many people aren’t aware of the impact our teeth have on our bones. In order for the jawbone to maintain its shape and density, it requires regular stimulation – which comes from our teeth – as they make hundreds of fleeting contacts with each other throughout the day as we chew and swallow. These contacts are transferred throughout the tooth socket in the jaw, encouraging the bone to continually remould and remodel.

When a tooth is lost, so too is this constant stimulation – which leads to a loss of width, height and density in the jawbone. This can cause the chin and lower face to effectively collapse, the cheeks to hollow and the lips and outer mouth area to look saggy and appear caved in.

What’s more, because the bone in the upper and lower jaw are now receding at different rates and angles, the whole of the face can start to change shape, with the distance between the nose and chin decreasing, making the face look squashed. Finally, the tongue very often spreads into the gaps left by missing teeth, leading to problems with speech and eating.

Psychological impact

An often overlooked consequence of tooth loss is the toll it can take on mental health. There has been a recent clamour by academics across the world to take the psychological impact of tooth loss far more seriously, with one particular study by Newcastle University, in the UK, finding that the devastation caused by tooth loss is for some on a par to losing a limb. Many participants in the countrywide study claimed to be so affected by their missing teeth that they avoided leaving the house, with countless others admitting to a feeling of shame.

The academics who carried out the study said they were surprised by the outcome but added that the mental health profession may have grossly “underestimated the distress that tooth loss can cause”.

Tooth loss has also been known to cause distinct behavioural changes in patients. Along with relatively well documented behavioural changes such as a shift in eating habits and avoiding smiling, there are also lesser discussed issues, such as a fear of kissing and laughing – and even apprehension in forming close relationships. A recent survey looked into the emotional impact of tooth loss and found that almost half of respondents struggled to come to terms with the new found gaps in their smile – despite many of them having suffered tooth loss over five years ago.

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