If you were to be faced with the question, “would you rather have a cavity or cancer?” the answer is pretty clear. All of us would prefer to deal with a seemingly minor issue that causes some discomfort and — at worst — the loss of a tooth, rather than facing a life-threatening disease.
Unfortunately, though, this simplistic view of oral health versus overall health and their relative seriousness doesn’t accurately tell the whole story. In fact, something as seemingly innocuous as a tiny cavity can actually have a huge impact on your overall health, even leading to conditions just as serious as cancer or any other well-known killers.
This misunderstanding causes a lot of people to de-prioritize dental care in favor of making sure their major medical needs are addressed. When money is tight, this is an understandable struggle, but it’s also a risky choice if maintaining overall health is your goal for yourself or your family. Being more balanced between the two by ensuring all the needed medical and dental services can be obtained leads to a better overall outcome for everyone involved.
So, what are some specific facets that are misunderstood regarding how your oral health impacts your overall health, and how can that balance be achieved?
Your mouth tells the story of your overall health
When your dentist performs a visual examination of your mouth, he’s not just checking to make sure the hygienist did a good job cleaning your teeth. He’s actually “reading” your oral cavity for tell-tale signs of both your oral and overall health.
Many visible oral health conditions are established indicators that something larger is awry in the body. In fact, one study suggests as many as “40 percent of the patients who are diagnosed with serious gum disease have another chronic health condition related to it.”
The following conditions can all either be diagnosed through an examination of your teeth, gums, palate, tongue, and throat, or signs the dentist notes in your mouth can lead to diagnostic efforts that may otherwise seem unnecessary:
- Immunodeficiency (including numerous autoimmune disorders like HIV/AIDS, Lupus and ITP)
- Infections (like endocarditis)
- Osteoporosis (and similar conditions affecting bone density)
- Oral cancer (cancer of the tongue, throat, sinuses, etc.)
- Cardiovascular disease (the #1 killer in the United States)
- High blood pressure
- (Increased risk of) Stroke
- GERD and acid reflux
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic stress
Excellent oral health starts at home… but it doesn’t end there
Most people these days are well aware of the simple but vital self-care habits we should all be maintaining to promote good oral health:
- Brushing our teeth
- Flossing our teeth
- Rinsing with antibacterial mouthwash
Likewise, most of us can generally determine which foods and drinks are good for our oral health and which pose a greater risk. Interestingly, those nutritional factors run parallel with the recommendations doctors and nutritionists have been making for years regarding overall health as well:
- Plenty of whole, natural foods
- Crunchy, colorful fruits and vegetables
- Limited sugar or sugary foods and drinks
- Plenty of water
But there’s one more piece to the puzzle that gets overlooked or, at least, underappreciated when it comes to maintaining oral health: the need for a professional cleaning and routine dental examination at least once every six months.
"Many visible oral health conditions are established indicators that something larger is awry in the body. In fact, one study suggests as many as '40 percent of the patients who are diagnosed with serious gum disease have another chronic health condition related to it.'"
Whether it’s because cost is an issue, or just because (as noted above) it’s not taken as seriously as other health needs, far too many adults in the United States postpone or completely ignore their semiannual routine dental visit. As a result, even those with excellent self-care habits at home can end up facing serious oral health problems while also missing out on the potential diagnostic power of a regular oral exam.
Oral health is just as important for seniors and adults as it is for kids
For the most part, American children have access to excellent dental care and their parents are very good about making sure they take care of their oral health. However, the insurance industry (among other influences) has given people the impression that dental care is no longer as important after the age of 18 or 21, because adults generally do not have dental coverage guaranteed to them through any sustainable insurance programs, whether public or private. The insurance coverage that is available is always presented as an optional addition to medical coverage, at an increased premium.
With budgets being tight and the cost of medical care constantly on the rise, it’s not surprising that many adults and seniors don’t pay that extra premium and are left paying out-of-pocket for dental care. As a result, they often don’t bother with it until they’re actually in pain.
In reality, though, regular dental care for seniors and dental care for adults is just as important as it is for children, if not more so. Since we become more susceptible to serious health conditions as we age, removing a potential diagnostic and treatment option from the mix only increases our chances of falling victim to a serious health issue later in life.
How can we balance maintaining oral health and overall health?
Achieving the proper balance requires a two-pronged approach:
- Changing our mindset
- Taking practical steps to prioritize
The simple fact is, our oral health IS our overall health. They’re really one-in-the-same. Our mouth is part of our body and the two can never truly be separated. So, viewing them as different or at odds with each other doesn’t make sense.
Instead, we need to change our mindset to view maintaining our oral health as just as important as maintaining our mental health, our emotional health, our cardiovascular health, and all the other facets of physical health we commonly think of when we’re picturing what “healthy” really means. And that includes viewing our dentist as a valued, important member of our healthcare team, right up there with our primary care physician and any specialists we rely on to help us with chronic issues we’re facing.
Finally, we need to take practical steps to prioritize oral health. That means going beyond brushing our teeth twice a day. Make and keep a routine cleaning and examination appointment every six months. Follow up quickly and effectively on any suggestions the dentist makes for improving.
If cost is a factor that’s holding you back, investigate what options may be available to you for dental insurance coverage or insurance alternatives like dental discount programs.
Are you an employee without dental insurance? Find out how you can still afford dental care in our employee dental savings guide.
Don’t fall into believing the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the links between your oral health and your overall health. Treat dental care with the respect it deserves and you’ll find your mouth rewards you with years of excellent health and happiness.