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Aging with a smile: Unleashing the mental well-being benefits of oral health

If you’re age 50 or older and don’t feel good about the way your teeth look, you’re not alone. A majority of older Americans hold back on things like smiling because they feel bad about their mouth’s appearance, even though they agree smiling could make them feel happier, found a recent Senior Mental and Oral Health Report from Delta Dental Insurance.

Looking at the  link between oral health and mental health, the survey asked over 1,000 older Americans questions about their oral health habits and their moods, particularly how often they feel depressed or anxious. The survey discovered that there is a harmful association between poor oral health and mouth pain, and depression, anxiety and low self-image.

“Our mouth can serve as a window to our mental health,” says Dr. Daniel Croley, Delta Dental’s Chief Dental Officer. “What we learned from key findings in the survey is that there is a clear connection between oral health habits and mental well-being. Depression often leads to poor dental hygiene which only worsens feelings of despair.”

What’s the Link Between Oral Health and Mental Health?

The survey results point to a strong connection between our oral health and our mental well-being. Respondents shared several ways their oral health affects the way they feel emotionally:

  • Almost half of them shared they are more likely to notice changes in their mood when experiencing dental pain or discomfort, regardless of their mental health status.
  • One in four feels negatively about themselves when brushing and flossing because they don’t like the way their teeth look.
  • And more than 36 percent of older adults indicated they smile less than they did when they were young due to deteriorating oral health or teeth, according to the survey.

In addition, 37 percent of Americans age 50 and older said oral tooth pain intensifies feelings of depression or hopelessness, and they’ve put off going to the dentist for a routine check-up or cleaning due to feeling this way. Many shared that their last visit to the dentist was more than three years ago. Delays in care, especially when you’re experiencing mouth pain, can sometimes be linked to serious conditions.

Dr. Croley emphasizes the importance of visiting the dentist for anyone experiencing oral health issues or pain. “Beyond causing discomfort and impeding our day-to-day lives, oral pain can be an indication that something more serious is going on,” he says. “Our mouth and our body are not separate entities – the pain you’re feeling may be caused by inflammation of the gums, for example, which can be linked to diabetes, heart disease and even an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Regular visits to your dentist will keep oral disease under control and can help you keep associated systemic conditions and diseases in check.”

Tips for a Healthy Mouth and Healthy Mind

To maintain a healthy mouth and mind, Delta Dental recommends these tips:

  • Visit the dentist as soon as possible if you feel pain in your mouth.
  • See your dentist regularly for exams and cleanings.
  • Brush your teeth twice and floss at least once each day.
  • Have open conversations with your dentist AND doctor about the connection between your oral health and mental health.
  • Seek care from a physician or licensed therapist to improve mental health.

And if at any time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed due to the way your teeth look or because of one or more of life’s stressors – to the point that you’re neglecting your oral health – Dr. Croley recommends taking small, manageable steps like daily flossing and brushing to give yourself a sense of accomplishment. These are examples of small habits that can give you a sense of control over your oral health and that should feel like a victory.

“Small wins may be small, but they are steps in the right direction, and they count for a lot,” he says.

Prioritizing our oral health, no matter our age, will improve our quality of life in numerous ways. For more expert insights into keeping your oral health in check, visit Delta Dental’s Healthy Aging Wellness Library.