In an age dominated by personal appearances – thanks in part to celebrities and politicians – more Americans are now investing truckloads of money into cosmetic dentistry. A study by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD) found people annually spend $3.75 billion on cosmetic dentistry to improve the aesthetic appeal of their faces, especially their smiles. Some of them just want their teeth to be a few shades whiter.
But another set of data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that 40 percent of all adults aged 65 over never paid a single visit to the dentist in a year, the primary reason for not visiting a dentist is the exorbitant costs.
This is a strange contrast in a world dominated by huge segments of society pouring in billions just for improving their looks, compared to millions of Americans who are barely able to keep their teeth healthy. While they might have health insurance, it usually does not cover dentistry because the premium is beyond what they could afford.
Oral Health America reported that 70% of senior citizens have no dental coverage. Most employers in the United States offer dental coverage as part of their employee benefits, which is highly sought after by newer recruits.
The primary reason why so much emphasis is placed on dental care is that poor oral hygiene can have repercussions to other parts of the body. The mouth serves as the entry point for food, which means oral health is of critical importance to our overall well being. Specifically, poor dental health increases the risk of debilitating diseases; such as, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, cancer and dementia to name a few.
Research has shown that dental infections directly contribute to cardiovascular disease, strokes and other related diseases. An article published in the Journal of Internal Medicine has proven that there is a link between gum disease (periodontitis) and heart disease. More than 90% of patients with heart diseases have or had periodontitis.
Bottom line: Simple habits like brushing and flossing one’s teeth are more important than most people would like to admit.
The theory linking oral hygiene with cardiovascular diseases
The exact mechanism behind the link has not been understood but the statistics don’t lie. Initial studies from as early as 1989 have shown that dental infections must be taken into account for all strokes and heart attack victims. Patients with serious gum disease had a 40% chance of contracting another chronic condition on top of it.
One proposed theory postulates that inflammation in the mouth causes inflammation of the blood vessels. Because inflamed vessels prevent the proper flow of blood to the heart and the rest of the body, it raises blood pressure. Another theory states that plaque can actually seep through the blood vessels and travel all the way to the heart or brain and cause heart attacks.
How infections generally start
Because of a general lack of oral hygiene, bacteria in the mouth builds up over time and accumulates just enough to cause inflammation which prompts the immune system to attack them. This tug of war between bacteria and the immune system causes the gums to become inflamed. The inflammation continues until the infection is removed from the body.
But this inflammation comes at a steep price to the mouth. Over time, the release of potent chemicals begins to compromise the gums and the structural integrity of the bones which are responsible for holding the teeth in their place. The result is no longer just a mild infection, but a serious gum disease, which is called periodontitis.
Diabetes is directly linked to lack of oral hygiene
Perhaps the strongest connection between oral hygiene and the rest of the body is diabetes. Inflammation of the mouth weakens the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels because of a lack of insulin. For patients who already suffer from diabetes, it further complicates their health balance. It starts a vicious cycle because high blood sugar actually fosters conditions for infections to grow in the mouth. It really is a two-way relationship.
Lack of dental insurance among senior citizens
The brunt of the dental problems is faced by senior citizens who no longer contribute as part of the active workforce and have exhausted their savings, making it a financial constraint for them to invest in dental care. With the exception of certain procedures required in a hospital, overall, Medicare does not pay for dental care, so the onus then falls on society to take proper care for those marginalized because of their age. This is significant since the elderly are more susceptible to dementia and poor dental health can lead to dementia as bacteria starts to find its way into the bloodstream and subsequently, the brain.
Regular contributions to non-profit charitable organizations which specialize in dental care should become a norm if we’re to uproot easily preventable diseases such as periodontitis.