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.
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 talk. 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.
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.
Prevention ideal, but there are always solutions
While some of the factors which lead to tooth loss – genetics or trauma for example – may be out of our hands, much of the time it is our own habits that leads to the problem. Most people are simply not spending enough time brushing and flossing, and many are seeing their dentist for a cleaning once every couple of years instead of the recommended twice a year.
A recent YouGov survey finding that nearly a third of UAE citizens admit to brushing their teeth only once a day. What’s more, recent estimates show that over half of five year-olds in the UAE have four or more decayed or missing teeth.
That said, while prevention is the preferred treatment, it is important to know that in the event you have lost your adult teeth, solutions are at hand. Dental implants, the most natural replacement for missing teeth, can now be fitted in a single day. And yes, they are just like the real thing – not just in appearance, but in the impact they have on ensuring your tooth loss no longer affects your health in a negative manner.
About the author:
BDS cum laude, FFD (SA) MFOS
Cert. Oral & MAxillofacial Surgery
Dr. Costa, BDS cum laude, FFD (SA) MFOS, qualified as a dentist in 1984 after receiving his dental degree from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He graduated at the top of his class with “rank order number one,” and has received numerous awards over the years, including the Gold Medal of the Dental Association of South Africa, which recognizes the most outstanding graduate. In 1990 he completed his four-year, full-time postgraduate in maxillo-facial and oral surgery training at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Since 1991 he has been in private practice, concentrating on immediate loading of dental implants. To date Dr. Costa has placed over 35,000 dental implants, and as a key member of the global dental implant community he is a regular speaker on the topic, lecturing at various international implant congresses. In 2012, together with Prosthodontist Dr. Petros, Dr. Costa established SameDay Dental Implants Clinic, Dubai, as well as the Branemark Osseointegration Center, Dubai.