Your Oral Health Says a Lot About Your General Health
If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, the mouth is a mirror of the body. That’s something Fred Barnett, DMD, wants everyone—seniors in particular—to remember.
Oral health reflects general health, enabling dentists to alert patients to potential underlying problems, said Dr. Barnett, Chair of Dentistry at Einstein Healthcare Network. Bone and tooth loss, as well as gum and mucosal problems, could be linked to undiagnosed diabetes, Crohn’s disease, acute leukemia, blood disorders, autoimmune and thyroid diseases. Mouth sores could unmask HIV and oral cancer.
Then, too, dental health can affect, as well as reflect, general health. “Oral disease is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke and has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight,” he said. “It’s a cascade of inflammation which has a negative effect on overall systemic health.”
Seniors, who are most vulnerable to oral health problems, often avoid seeing the dentist because of problems with cost and access—and because the link between oral disease and systemic disease is not commonly known.
“In general, most people don’t associate problems with oral health as having any influence on overall systemic health,” Dr. Barnett said. “We see it in our professional journals all the time, but it never really seems to get much public notice; it’s not getting the attention it deserves.”
“Oral disease is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke and has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight. It’s a cascade of inflammation which has a negative effect on overall systemic health.”—Fred Barnett, DMD
Seniors are particularly vulnerable to dental health problems in part because they’ve had more years to expose their mouths to “irritants” such as cigarettes, alcohol and other damaging substances. They’re also more likely to be taking medications that lead to “dry mouth,” a condition in which they’re not producing adequate saliva to wash away the mouth’s bacteria and keep the mucosal tissues healthy. Decreased salivary production is associated with an increased risk of tooth decay, gum and mucosal problems.
And if they’re not seeing a dentist regularly, they’re missing an opportunity to be monitored for conditions that might possibly be overlooked by primary care physicians.
“Typically when someone goes for an annual physical, the doctor takes a tongue depressor and looks at the back of the throat,” Dr. Barnett said. “I doubt that many primary care doctors take a serious look at the gums and the teeth.”
In addition, Dr. Barnett said, patients at Einstein’s Dental Clinic have their blood pressure checked at their first visit and often at subsequent visits as well. He has alerted more than one unsuspecting patient that he or she has hypertension and diabetes, that was not previously diagnosed. Indeed, he recalls a patient whose appointment ended abruptly as soon as Dr. Barnett read his blood pressure. “I told him he needed to go directly to the ER. His blood pressure was dangerously off the charts.”
Mostly though, the clues are in the teeth and gums. Regular visits for oral health are essential because your mouth tells tales that only your dentist can hear.