Most people know that health checkups are important. But while the most attention is focused on physical checkups to screen for and prevent heart disease and cancer, regular dental checkups are equally important. There were over 830,000 visits to emergency departments across the country for preventable dental emergencies in 2009, a 16 percent increase since 2006.
Like many parts of the body, the mouth is teeming with bacteria, most of it harmless. But bacteria buildup on the teeth can lead to infection and inflammation. This inflammation can spread to the rest of the body and also decrease the body’s ability to control blood sugar, leading to diabetes.
Studies also link periodontal disease to a much higher risk of coronary heart disease. One study found that oral health problems like gum disease, cavities, and missing teeth were a good predictor of heart disease. Oral diseases and dental health issues are common among older Americans who often grew up without the benefit of community water fluoridation and fluoride toothpastes.
Progressive gum disease and tooth decay can also lead to loss of teeth. About 25 percent of adults 60 years old and older no longer have any natural teeth. This percentage varies widely by state: in West Virginia, about 40 percent of seniors lack any natural teeth, but only 18 percent of seniors in California are toothless.
Lack of teeth can affect nutrition. Dentures are often not as effective as natural teeth, so many seniors do not get the fresh fruits and vegetables needed to maintain optimal health.
Another problem is dry mouth, which affects over 30 percent of seniors. Most older Americans take some prescription and over-the-counter medications. Individuals in long-term care facilities, which is about 5 percent of the elderly population, take an average of eight drugs daily. Over 400 commonly used medications can cause a dry mouth. Since saliva contains antibacterial substances and minerals that help rebuild tooth enamel consumed by bacteria, chronic dry mouth can lead to severe gum disease and tooth loss.
Finally, there are oral and pharyngeal cancers, which are diagnosed in 31,000 Americans and result in 7,400 deaths each year, mainly in the elderly. Early detection of cancers can be crucial to proper treatment and long-term survival.
But maintaining proper oral health and getting regular dental checkups is too often not a priority. Many people lose their dental insurance when they retire. Medicaid funds dental care for low income and disabled families in some states, but reimbursements are low. And Medicare was not designed to provide routine dental care.
Many of us don’t realize that keeping good oral health is important to our overall health as well. The mouth is a window to the body. That’s why maintaining a healthy mouth is one of the best things you can do for yourself.