Although she was thrilled to be back at her alma mater, she was somewhat apprehensive. Although this distinguished international scholar had delivered hundreds of academic presentations on her research, she chuckled and admitted she had the same jitters she felt ten years earlier defending her dissertation.
Bei Wu, PhD, is an alumna of the doctoral program in gerontology at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Wu returned to campus on April 2 to deliver a guest lecture on “Aging, Race/Ethnicity, and Oral Health in the U.S.” to a large group of students, faculty and staff.
According to Department Chair of Gerontology Jeffrey Burr, “We are starting a new tradition today." He indicated that moving forward, the Gerontology Department will be inviting one or two graduates back to campus each year to provide lectures and to visit with students. He went on to say, “We are honored to have this accomplished professor and graduate of the Gerontology PhD Program here today."
Using data from three national surveys and numbers from both self-reported and clinical studies, Wu shared fascinating research findings on the correlation between oral health and aging. Her research includes analyses of tooth loss, denture use, periodontal disease, tooth decay, and dry mouth, and their relationships to accelerated aging, mortality, and such systemic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, depression, stroke, osteoporosis, hypertension, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Because gerontology is an interdisciplinary field, Wu also looks at social, economic, psychological, and behavioral factors as important determinants of oral health in elders. She also studies oral health among different age groups and breaks down her data to look at outcomes for different ethnic groups. She also examines international data for comparison as well.
For example, she showed a map she prepared of the incidence of endentulism (complete tooth loss) which graphically depicts those in impoverished Kentucky (42.3 %), West Virginia (41.9 %), and Mississippi (35.1 %) had the highest rates while residences with higher education levels and salaries in Connecticut (16.0 %) and California (13.3 %) had the lowest. Interestingly, Wu noted that obesity and smoking maps look very similar.
Other findings demonstrate oral health disparities among racial groups. Wu and her research colleagues found that blacks and Hispanics have a higher number of missing or untreated decayed teeth while whites, who have better access to dental care, have a higher number of filled teeth.
Wu is also interested in the policy side of gerontology, namely the interventions needed to improve oral health.
“It is essential for geriatric oral health promotion to encompass not only the treatment of oral diseases and conditions but to require an increased focus to work with interdisciplinary teams on prevention and education,” she remarked.
To meet the future needs of elder oral health care, she calls for a four-pronged approach. First, clinical care needs to develop models to meet the diverse needs of the increasing number of older adults. Second, more research has to be done and disseminated on the connection between systemic conditions and oral diseases as people age. Next, education is key; there are too few dentists in the U.S. right now and even less trained to address elder issues. Finally, at the policy level, a comprehensive approach of sustainable treatment and prevention programs is required.
Her work on these subjects has been published in the American Journal of Public Health, Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, among others.
Bei Wu is a professor and director of international research at Duke University. She holds a number of additional appointments at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the West Virginia University School of Dentistry. She also holds adjunct professor/senior fellow positions in three academic institutions in China, conducting numerous aging-related studies there. Her research fields include aging and health, including dementia, care giving, oral health, long-term care, and health services utilization among older adults.