Study Shows Poor Oral Health Contributes to Senior Malnutrition

A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has named poor dental hygiene as a contributing factor for malnutrition in elderly Americans. With around 47.2% of all adults above the age of 30 already suffering from some form of periodontal disease, there is significant concern that there is a widespread contributor to malnutrition and poor health that is not adequately being treated.

The study was performed by researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and aimed to determine what were the key risk factors associated with older adult patients who were receiving emergency care as the result of malnutrition and related medical issues.

Two hundred fifty-two patients, all 65 and older, were selected for the study across North Carolina, Michigan, and New Jersey. Those selected were then screened for malnutrition and asked about the possible risk factors.

The study found that 12% of the people in the study suffered from malnutrition. That number is in line with previous estimates. The number was slightly higher in North Carolina, prompting researchers to note that North Carolina has the third highest rate of elderly individuals living below the poverty line.

Additionally, the study found that over half of the study participants had some form of dental problems, and perhaps more significantly, those with dental issues were three times more likely to experience malnutrition.

Poor dental health is a problem that poses significant challenges for seniors, but also one that is not easily fixed. Colin Burks, who is a medical student at UNC and the lead author of the study, explained.

“Improving oral health in older adults will be more challenging but also important. Medicare does not cover dental care.” Burks said to Dental Tribune. “Fixing dental problems not only makes it easier for these individuals to eat but also can improve their self-esteem, quality of life and overall health. We need affordable methods of providing dental care for older adults.”

The fact that Medicare does not include dental insurance is key to understanding why so many seniors struggle with their dental health. The average retirement age is 63 years old in the U.S., but the average life expectancy is almost 79 years. That means seniors have almost 16 years of either paying for dental care out of pocket, paying for a private insurance plan, or not receiving dental care at all.

Some states, like California, have taken to offering some seniors access to medicare-styled dental care programs. But as KUSI News reports, there are a number of serious concerns about the underfunding of the state’s Denti-Cal program.

Until a time when dental care is more widely accessible to seniors, it seems likely that malnutrition problems will continue.