Direct link between frailty and oral health

FRAIL older people have a much greater risk of oral health problems, according to new research.

Those with muscular weakness, sudden weight loss or impaired mobility are more likely to experience problems, such as difficulties in biting and chewing food, and sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks.

The investigation published in the Journal of Gerondontology also found a connection between frailty and speech difficulties, as well as a greater likelihood of taking oral pain medication.

The study examined a large number of hospitalised elderly patients over a six-month period. It found that frail adults are more likely to feel self-conscious about their teeth, gums or dentures. They are also unhappy with how their teeth look, yet access dental care less often.

Figures show that in the UK more than five million people aged over 65 experience significant health problems.

Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, said the oral health of older people remains an ongoing issue.

He said: "In the UK, people are living longer than ever before. This will increase the amount of poor health, frailty and disability. In turn, it will create a series of challenges for how we care for the population’s oral health."

He said problems often begin with a loss of dexterity and that limited mobility, no matter how small, can have a considerable negative impact on people’s ability to carry out even basic oral health tasks such as toothbrushing.

Maintaining balanced nutrition has also been shown to be more difficult, he said, which often leads to more frequent sugar consumption. Those with health problems are also more likely to be on medication which can make conditions such as dry mouth more common.

Dr Carter called on the government to be more proactive in improving the provision of oral healthcare for older people, including offering dental services in hospitals, residential homes and in patients’ own homes.

He said: "The availability of dentists needs to be urgently addressed. There are also major barriers with transporting elderly people to the dentist while financial difficulties often become more common. Worryingly, there is also a poor knowledge and a lack of awareness of oral health amongst carers.

"All of these factors create an urgent need to move towards a more effective system for oral health care of our elderly."