By Kenzie Ferguson

Illustration of a woman with grey hair standing in front of a mirror holding a toothbrush

This post is the third of a four-part series where we will dive into the topic of social isolation as a determinant of health and its relationship to oral health.

In previous posts, we touched on what social isolation is and its relationship to health. Now, we want to examine some of the research about the relationship between social isolation and oral health.

The connection between oral health and overall health is well documented. Poor oral health and periodontal disease have been linked to a slew of chronic conditions and systemic diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, certain types of cancer, and more. So, it would stand to reason that being socially isolated would lead to worse oral health outcomes. Though interestingly, much of the research suggests the opposite. Those with poor oral health tend to become socially isolated.

According to a 2012 study from Jeffrey Burr and Hyo Jung Lee with the University of Massachusetts, Boston, loneliness may make an individual less likely to visit the dentist. As we know from our work in underserved communities, a lack of access to dental care can result in tooth decay, gum disease and even tooth loss. Even small cavities or other issues can balloon into massive problems if left untreated.

Researchers published in the European Journal of Ageing wanted to explore this further and created a study to test their hypothesis that “poor oral health will be associated with greater levels of loneliness” and “will have a negative influence on social participation, social support and depressive symptoms, which in turn will mediate the association between oral health and loneliness.” They studied older adults living in England and found “a strong and consistent association between oral impacts and loneliness in this nationally representative sample of older English adults.”

A similar study in Japan looked at the relationship between having teeth or dentures and being homebound. It found that “having fewer teeth and failure to use dentures was associated with future onset homeboundness in young-old population.”   

At Delta Dental, we draw the connection between a healthy smile and physical health, but we can’t underestimate the importance a healthy smile has on mental health. People with missing, chipped, crooked or stained teeth may lack the confidence to go out into the world and thus withdraw from social interaction. The idea of dental dignity is a potent one, and the relationship between people with poor oral health and social isolation is troubling.

Social isolation is a problem for older adults’ oral and overall health. But what is to be done about it, and how can we help address it? Next week, our final post in the series, we will discuss organizations working to promote social connectedness and actions we can take to help those who might be isolated in their communities.