Having few or no natural teeth at the age of 70 may be an early indicator of accelerated aging, Danish researchers suggest.
"It is important to take poor dental health seriously in that these people may be at greater risk of general physical and/or cognitive decline," Dr. Poul Holm-Pedersen, of the Copenhagen Gerontological Oral Health Research Center, told Reuters Health.
The finding in this study that tooth loss appears related to the onset of disability and mortality in old age raises important clinical issues for disease prevention and geriatric care, Holm-Pedersen and colleagues note in a report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The researchers assessed the number of teeth remaining intact among 573 non-disabled men and women who were 70 years old and living in Copenhagen in 1984.
At the start of the study, fewer than 20 percent of the elders had 20 or more teeth, and more than 40 percent had no teeth. The investigators determined the onset of disability among study participants through follow-up assessments conducted 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-years later; and assessed their mortality over the subsequent 21 years.
Those with 20 or more teeth did better
Compared with elders maintaining 20 or more natural teeth, those with no or few teeth at age 70 were significantly more likely to report mobility problems such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs within the next 5 or 10 years.
Toothlessness at age 70 was also linked with greater mortality over the study period.
These associations remained strong when the investigators accounted for other factors potentially associated with disability and death, such as health-related problems and education.
"Tooth loss may be related to complex behavioral and socioeconomic factors," Holm-Pedersen said. Future studies should assess whether different measures of social status and lifestyle factors explain the association between tooth loss and subsequent disability and mortality, the investigators say.