Photo/IllutrationElderly people participate in an oral health lecture in Tokyo on Dec. 7, 2017. (Tsuyoshi Kawamura)

Oral frailty in the elderly that increases the chances of choking and makes it more difficult to eat hard foods could double the risk of death in the future, a new study has shown.

A team that included researchers from the University of Tokyo released the study results, advising the elderly to have periodic dental checkups, since it is difficult for them to be aware of declining oral health.

The study was conducted among about 2,000 people of 65 years old and over who do not need nursing care and resided in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, in 2012.

The six items screened for among the elderly were fewer than 19 teeth remaining; weakness in chewing; unable to move mouth well; strength of tongue is weak; difficulty in eating hard foods; and increased susceptibility to choking.

The elderly were sorted into three groups of those who met three items or more; met one or two items; or nothing. Researchers examined the state of their health about four years later.

As a result, the death rate of the group who met three items or more was 2.09 times greater than the group meeting zero items even if removing influences such as age. Also among those meeting three items or more, the rate of needing nursing care increased 2.35 times; the rate of becoming declining of muscle strength, called “sarcopenia,” within two years was 2.13 times greater; the rate of losing mental and physical strength in addition to muscular strength, called a condition of “frailty,” was 2.41 times more.

The study showed the elderly whose movement of their mouths is weaker were more likely to have a poorer diet and eat less meat. That is believed to occur because taking unbalanced nutrition lowered their physical strength and worsened their health.

The decline of mouth functioning, which people often don’t take as important, is called “oral frailty.” In the medical field, the idea of trying to reduce the number of elderly who need nursing care by setting early preventive measures is increasingly in the spotlight.

“People tend to pay attention to the number of teeth they have. But it was gradually revealed that the accumulation of slight mouth frailty, such as the declining power of chewing or speaking, largely influences their health,” said research team member Katsuya Iijima, a professor of the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Gerontology, specializing in geriatric gerontology. “I want the elderly to be aware of any onset of oral frailty early on and take oral measures as recommended by their personal dentists.”

The study result was published recently in an international gerontology magazine, the Journals of Gerontology.