Afraid of the dentist? You're not alone. Along with the vast majority of the population that has a distaste for the dentist, 5% of people have extreme dental fear. Sometimes, this fear can be so bad that patients will not come in for years at a time to avoid the anxiety they associate with their dental professional.

But going to the dentist is important, as your mother and Dr. R. Constance Wiener, Ph.D., from West Virginia University, both say. Dr. Wiener presented a study at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Dental Research that examined the relationship between mental health and tooth loss. Results showed that there is a significant association between depression or anxiety and tooth loss. In other words, the anxiety warding you away from the dentist might also cause additional anxiety if you lose your teeth.

The Study

Researchers used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data from 2010 for the study. The BRFSS is the world's largest ongoing telephone survey for health research. Of the 2010 participants, there were 292 eligible for this study. Approximately 13.4% of these participants reported anxiety, 16.7% reported depression, and 5.7% had total tooth loss.

When the data were synthesized, researchers found that depression, anxiety, and a combined category of depression and anxiety were significantly different in people with tooth loss and people without, meaning that people with tooth loss had more anxiety than people without tooth loss.

Reason for Fear

While the reasons for this additional anxiety are not clear, there could be several biopsychosocial factors contributing to it. In addition to the lack of affordability of dental care for impoverished families—in which the state of being impoverished as a child might also contribute to anxiety as an adult—previous mental health concerns could contribute to the frequency of dental visits, and, as a result, levels of depression and anxiety in this study. For example, if a patient has severe dentophobia (fear of the dentist), then he or she might put off a visit for long stretches of time, which, in turn, causes additional discomforts and pain during a dental health visit and reaffirms the patient's fear. People with depression may find it difficult to take care of themselves. Often times, it is difficult for these people to get out of bed in the morning, not even mentioning getting dressed and going to a doctor's appointment.

There are multiple factors that could contribute to this anxiety, but anxiety and depression from tooth loss might be reason enough. For example, people with hearing loss and deafness have been shown to have greater rates of mental illness than regularly hearing people. A 2006 study on the subject found that symptoms of mental illness were more significantly present in deaf individuals than their hearing counterparts. While hearing and tooth loss are completely different, the distress of being labeled as an “other" can take a toll on any individual, no matter the situation. This is especially true of individuals with an impairment, like hearing loss or tooth loss.

The moral of the story is: don't skip your dental check-ups. Even if you have dentophobia, putting off the visit will only make the results worse. The last thing you want is tooth loss.

Date of original publication: .

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