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Feature:
Oral Health and Aging

NIH Research Addresses Aging Issues and Disparities in Oral Health

The NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) is the nation’s leading funder of research on dental, oral, and craniofacial health and disorders. NIDCR also conducts research in its own laboratories and clinic, supports research training, and promotes the timely transfer of knowledge gained from research to health professionals, patients, and the general public.

NIH MedlinePlus magazine recently spoke with NIDCR Director Dr. Martha Somerman about the importance of research on oral health and older adults.

Martha Somerman, DDS, PhD, NIDCR Director
Photo Courtesy of: NIH

Why is it important to have a research focus on older adults?

One reason is that older adults make up a rapidly growing segment of our population. In fact, America’s 65-and-older population is projected to more than double to almost 100 million by 2060.

The risk of developing certain diseases and conditions increases with age, and those conditions, or their treatments, can negatively affect oral health. Poor blood glucose control in diabetes, for example, can put you at risk for periodontal (gum) disease. Cancer treatments can cause a host of oral problems. Medications can damage oral tissues and/or decrease salivary flow, causing dry mouth.

It’s also important to know that some oral conditions are more common in older adults; periodontal disease is one example. And the risk of oral cancer increases with age.

What does the latest data tell us about older adults' oral health?

It gives us some good news, but also shows us there is room for improvement. The good news is the number of people with complete tooth loss continues to decline. The latest data show us that 19 percent of adults aged 65 and over have lost all their teeth. In the early 1960s that number was more than 50 percent! The overall trend continues in the right direction.

But there are still disparities. Twenty-nine percent—or almost one-third—of older African Americans have lost all their teeth, compared with 17 percent of white older adults and 15 percent of Hispanic older adults. Although the general trend is good, there is clearly still work to be done.

What types of research is NIDCR conducting on aging and oral health?

We’re currently funding basic research on the biology of the aging mouth, which will help us understand how diseases and their treatments impact oral health.

NIDCR-funded researchers are also working with older adults in publicly funded housing to determine how to help residents maintain oral health. The research is evaluating motivational interviewing, counseling, and oral hygiene skills-building to establish which approach(es) is most effective.

We are also in active discussions with NIH Institutes dedicated to research on older adults. Moving forward, we’ll seek out additional opportunities to expand our research on oral health and aging, including research aimed at reducing oral health disparities, and also explore partnerships with organizations that are committed to improving the health of older Americans.

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Oral Health and Aging / 4 Myths About Oral Health and Aging / NIH Research Addresses Aging Issues and Disparities in Oral Health

Summer 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 2 Page 17