Numerous studies show that tooth loss can create intense emotional distress in a person’s life, to the point of severely affecting mental well-being.
In recent years this issue has been the subject of several important studies around the world. It’s true that in many cultures losing teeth with age is seen as simply part of life, however this is not the case for younger people, and even those in advanced years often have very different expectations regarding tooth retention compared to earlier generations.
In other words, the idea of losing some or all of our teeth wasn’t that unusual in the past, but today we expect to keep them pretty much our entire lives.
And when this doesn’t happen, we are understandably distressed.
So let’s find out why this important medical issue is often not addressed with the gravity or depth that it deserves, and why the lives of patients can take such a negative turn following tooth loss.
Tooth loss taboo?
A 2013 study carried out on individuals with tooth loss in the UK claimed the psychological trauma from loss of teeth could be comparable to losing any other part of the body. Yes, that is how serious it can be for some patients. It really gives us pause for thought, particularly given that – unlike other medical conditions – tooth loss has often been either the subject of cruel jokes or simply not spoken about at all.
So it’s time to take this a lot more seriously.
The study also pointed out that some patients were affected so badly that they no longer ventured out in public, losing confidence in a manner comparable to someone coping with a chronic illness.
Psychology of tooth loss
The subtitle of the 2013 study really did say it all: ‘Your whole life is lived through your teeth.’ And without getting too deep into the psychology, it’s worth highlighting a couple of key findings.
We construct certain ‘meanings’ for tooth loss, and it’s these meanings which cause us emotional distress. For the patient, tooth loss brings up ideas of a ‘neglected mouth’ or a ‘marker of old age.’ And they come to see having dentures as an indication of the mouth being ‘invaded’ or ‘unreliable.’
Let’s put it another way: It’s a disruption in the relationship between ourselves and one of our body parts. When that relationship changes, we start to perceive ourselves differently. And because of that we feel low on confidence and unhappy.
Living a normal life
Okay, that’s enough of the psychology talk. What specifically do people worry about regarding tooth loss? What exactly is causing emotional distress?
Well, of course retaining your smile is a priority. Alongside this are concerns about eating normally (a complete topic in itself). But it goes further – patients are also worried about kissing and wondering how their partner (or a potential future partner) might react.
A dental hospital study in the year 2000 found that 42 of the 94 people surveyed (all of whom were undergoing prosthetic care) were suffering from a lack of confidence, increased difficulty in doing everyday activities, as well as problems accepting the change in facial shape due to tooth loss.
A large number of patients said they did not feel prepared for the loss of teeth, and a more detailed explanation from the dentist would have been helpful.
So this is where choosing the right care is critical, someone who can talk to you in real terms about what to expect at each stage of the process, and lay out the options following tooth loss to regain facial shape and your general feeling of confidence and well-being.
Because thankfully there are now options outside of dentures to deal with tooth loss and speaking to experts in this area will help you understand what can be done to address these challenges.
Studies in Saudi Arabia and India showed a much greater acceptance of tooth loss among those questioned compared to the UK study, but it was interesting to see that while aesthetics were not a priority, ‘normalising’ oral function certainly was. So either way, action needed to be taken. Because this is surely something all people share – the idea of wanting to be able to eat normally and avoid the negative emotional effects of no longer being able to do something that we all take for granted.
What you can do
Thanks to developments in implant dentistry and more specifically in the specialities of oral maxillofacial surgery and prosthodontic dentistry over the past few years, much of this distress can now be avoided without the need for dentures – which the studies show can themselves cause additional worry to the patient. For many, having dentures simply does not solve the emotional aspect of the problem.
So let’s talk about it. Tooth loss no longer needs to be a taboo subject, rather it can become something people are comfortable speaking about. Because patients experiencing emotional distress from tooth loss need to be seen in a serious light, and those suffering from it must be listened to and understood.
It’s not about hiding and losing your confidence – it’s about taking action.
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.