More Elderly Keeping Their Natural Teeth

More Community Dental Programs and Education Needed

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 18, 2003

Dec. 18, 2003 -- The numbers of older people retaining their natural teeth has increased steadily over past decades, the CDC says. That trend is likely to continue, vastly improving quality of life for seniors, the new report shows.

But elderly Americans need greater help from community sources for dental care, since Medicaid coverage is limited, the report says. Ethnic minorities, people living in poverty, and those in poor general health are most at risk of losing all their teeth in old age.

The study, published today, provides results of a nationwide telephone survey of 50,635 adults over age 65. The survey included all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories.

Among the findings:

  • In 26 states, more than half of older adults have most of their teeth -- which means they have lost five or fewer.
  • Estimates of most-tooth retention ranged from 27% in West Virginia to 64% in Utah. In three states -- California, Colorado, and Utah -- more than 60% had retained most teeth.
  • In five states and territories -- Kentucky, Mississippi, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- less than 40% had retained most teeth.
  • The numbers of older adults that had lost all of their natural teeth varied from state to state. Hawaii and California had 13% missing all natural teeth; Kentucky and West Virginia reported having more than 40% of older adults having loss all their natural teeth.

The top five surveyed with the healthiest oral hygiene in older adults were:

1. Utah


2. California, Colorado


3. Hawaii


4. Minnesota


5. Arizona


Those states reporting most loss of teeth in older adults:

1. Kentucky, West Virginia


2. Tennessee


3. Mississippi


4. Louisiana


5. North Carolina, Oklahoma


African-Americans living in poverty, with little formal education, were most likely not to get treatment for cavities or more serious dental problems, the CDC report shows.

Surveys have shown that Mexican-Americans also have high rates of untreated cavities. Lack of education about dental care and little access to dental care likely play a role in those communities, the report explains.

Smoking Hard on Gums

Smokers have lowest rates of tooth retention, which might be related directly to adverse effects of cigarette smoking. Nearly half the cases of gum disease in this country are related to smoking.

While many aging adults have retained their natural teeth, those in poor health need more help keeping their teeth, the report says. They have lost dexterity, mobility, and tolerance for stress -- all of which compromise their ability to take care of their teeth, visit the dentist, or tolerate dental treatment.

Community water fluoridation provides the most effective and cost-effective method for preventing cavities. But paying for dental care is an issue for many elderly people. Most elderly people lose dental insurance when they retire. And Medicaid provides only limited coverage of dental services in certain states.

More community-based dental programs are needed to help elderly people take care of their teeth, the CDC report concludes.