Oral health, total health: Know the connection

Oral health and its relationship to total health underscores the need to educate consumers about the importance of quality preventive oral health care.

Research has identified periodontal (gum) disease as a risk factor for heart and lung disease, diabetes, pre-mature, low-birth weight babies and a number of other conditions. The 2000 surgeon general's report, Oral Health in America, called attention to this connection and states that, if left untreated, poor oral health is a "silent X-factor promoting the onset of life-threatening diseases which are responsible for the deaths of millions of Americans each year."

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Periodontal disease and general health

The signs and symptoms of many potentially life-threatening diseases first appear in the mouth. Dental hygienists routinely screen for these signs and symptoms during regular oral health examinations and explain their observations to patients, urging them to follow up with a medical visit for a definitive diagnosis.

When necessary, dental hygienists also provide therapy for the oral manifestations of systemic diseases.

Heart disease

A major disease with an oral health connection is heart disease -- the No. 1 killer of men and women, claiming more victims than all forms of cancer and AIDS combined.

Cardiovascular disease affects more than 60 million people in the U.S. each year and kills almost a million. Numerous research studies have shown a connection between heart disease and key bacteria in periodontal disease. While research continues to explore this link, dental hygienists are instrumental in identifying the presence and extent of the periodontal infection and work with patients to treat existing periodontal problems and to prevent future complications.

Diabetes

Another disease that has an important relationship to periodontal disease is diabetes -- a serious, costly, and increasingly common chronic disease that affects nearly 16 million Americans and contributes to almost 200,000 deaths per year.

Periodontal disease has long been considered a major complication of diabetes. About 95 percent of Americans who have diabetes also have periodontal disease, and research shows people with periodontal disease have more difficulty controlling their blood sugar level.

Severe periodontal disease also can increase the risk of developing diabetes. After a physician has made a conclusive diagnosis, it is critical that patients with diabetes regularly receive professional oral health care and follow a customized home-care routine to help keep their blood sugar levels in check.

Babies

Periodontal disease also has been linked to premature, low-birth weight babies. Studies have found expectant mothers with periodontal disease are up to seven times more likely to deliver premature, low-birth weight babies.

And, oral infection also has been implicated in respiratory ailments. Bacteria in periodontal disease can travel from the mouth to the lungs and lower respiratory system, where it can aggravate respiratory conditions, particularly in patients who already have other diseases.

Other connections

A routine oral health exam also can uncover signs and symptoms of osteoporosis and low bone mass, conditions that affect 44 million Americans age 50 and older; eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, which can be detected by thin tooth enamel, and a red mouth; and HIV, which often shows signs in the mouth first.

Oral cancer

One of the most serious diseases found in the mouth is oral cancer. Often curable in its early stages, oral cancers are a major cause of death and disfigurement in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Oral cancer is more common than leukemia, skin melanoma, Hodgkin's disease and cancers of the brain, liver, thyroid, gland, stomach, ovaries and cervix. If caught early it can be treated successfully. However, if not detected early, it can spread into other parts of the body and become difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

The oral cancer screening constitutes one of the most important components of a routine dental hygiene and dental exam.

About 75 percent of American adults have some form of periodontal disease and the majority of them do not realize they have it, because in its early stages, it is usually painless.

In view of the critical relationship of periodontal disease to overall health, and the staggering number of Americans who develop it, it is essential the disease be prevented or detected early and treated aggressively.

The American Dental Hygienists' Association is the largest national organization representing the professional interests of the more than 120,000 dental hygienists across the country.

Dental hygienists are preventive oral health professionals, licensed in dental hygiene, who specialize in the prevention and treatment of oral diseases in order to protect total health.

For information on local dental care options, call the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition at 824-8000 or Colorado Northwestern Community College at 1-800-562-1105.

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