When we can no longer chew it doesn’t just affect our oral health, it has a dramatic effect on our overall well-being
Chewing is vitally important.
I doubt this is news to anyone. We all know that tooth loss from trauma, decay, periodontal disease, or old age can lead to the inability to chew properly. But what may shock you is the fact that this simple act – something most people do countless times per day without much thought – is intricately connected to a wide range of other health issues.
So when our ability to chew is compromised due to tooth loss, it can have a major impact on our quality of life and sense of well-being. Because not being able to chew affects not only our oral health, but also our overall health and quality of life. In addition, studies are now suggesting it could also impact our cognitive function and be a factor in a possible increased risk of dementia in old age.
So in this article, we are going to examine what exactly happens when we lose chewing ability and why this loss seems to have such a serious effect on so many aspects of our lives.
Can you chew?
Let’s start off by asking an important question: How do we measure chewing ability?
There are several methods of assessing a person’s chewing ability, but a 1990 Canadian study set out its parameters in a way that is easy to follow. The Index of Chewing Ability (ICA) uses five food items that the patient ranks in terms of their ability to chew. These food stuffs vary but might include the following: Carrots, celery, apples, steak, and salad.
If you can chew all five of the foods presented to you with no problems, then you can be said to have competent chewing ability, and your score would be a five. If you score lower than five because there were one or two items you could not chew properly, then you would fall within the category of having a chewing deficiency.
And if you do score lower than five, you will probably already be experiencing some additional oral health problems such as sore (or infected) gums, pain from toothache, and teeth that are loose or limited in function.
But the problems are not simply limited to oral health. Let’s continue.
Chewing ability and emotional well-being
The Oral Health-related Quality of Life measurement is a far reaching method of assessing a patient’s oral health and oral function. It draws together multiple areas to examine how a person is affected by the particular dental problem they are facing.
One of the key areas measured is psychological distress. The inability to chew can cause emotional problems for the patient who feels embarrassed at not being able to eat certain things, at having to interrupt their meals, or at noticing changes in their appearance. This can affect a person’s confidence and ability to lead a normal life.
A 2012 Brazilian study showed that chewing disability created a ‘significant and negative’ impact on Oral Health-related Quality of Life. It also claimed that this negative impact on sense of well-being, along with the chewing disability itself, were both related to a decrease in the number of natural teeth.
So it becomes a vicious cycle. Meaning it is not a problem one can ignore.
What happens if you can’t eat certain foods? Well, it means you avoid them. Which immediately upsets the balance of your daily intake of nutrients.
So this is an area where the inability to chew foods has a real impact that reaches beyond oral health and into our general health and well-being.
It’s common to see a decrease in intake of certain vitamins associated with hard-to-chew foods such as fruit and vegetables in patients suffering from chewing difficulties. They can also experience more digestive difficulties, and therefore be prone to taking more medication for gastrointestinal problems than someone not suffering chewing problems.
Chewing ability and cognitive function
You have probably read articles with headlines such as ‘chewing gum makes you smarter,’ but did you ever take them seriously? Believe it or not, it does make you smarter. But it has nothing to do with gum – this is about chewing in general.
That’s right, there is now mounting evidence of a correlation between good cognitive function and chewing. In other words, chewing is good for brain health.
A 2012 Swedish study assessed more than 500 people, all in their late seventies. They found that those who had difficulties chewing harder foods had a greater risk of developing dementia. It’s not entirely clear yet why this is the case, although some suggest it is linked to the fact that chewing increases blood flow to the brain.
Interestingly, the researchers stated that whether the person is chewing with natural teeth or prostheses, it didn’t significantly affect the chance of dementia – as long as there was no difficultly in actual chewing.
Regaining the ability to chew properly
It’s clear that action needs to be taken to address the inability to chew so the patient can enjoy a normal life free from pain, embarrassment, and potential nutritional problems.
It has been shown that dentures simply do not fix this problem, often restoring only a small fraction of a person’s chewing ability. There are however other solutions which now mean patients can regain chewing ability and chewing awareness in a way that dentures simply cannot provide.
So discussing options with a specialist dentist is the first step to restoring normal chewing ability and enjoying the benefits that come with it.
About the author:
D.M.D. summa cum laude
Cert. Prosthodontics (TUFTS, U.S.A.)
Dr. Petros is co-director of the Branemark Osseointegration Center Dubai. He qualified as a dentist in 1995, receiving his dental degree summa cum laude from Semmelweis University in Budapest. He graduated at the top of his class and was also chosen as valedictorian. In 1998 he completed the three-year, full-time postgraduate specialist prosthodontist training at Tufts University in Boston, United States, where he was awarded the Postgraduate Prosthodontist Certificate. Since 1999 Dr. Petros has been working in private practice as a specialist prosthodontist, almost exclusively on the prosthodontic rehabilitation of dental implants. He lectures extensively on same day implants and teeth reconstruction protocols. Together with Dr. Costa(Cert. Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery), Dr. Petros is the cofounder of SameDay Dental Implants Clinic located in Building 39 in Dubai Healthcare City in the United Arab Emirates.