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The importance of oral health

Dental hygiene isn’t just about teeth, good oral health can also help prevent a number of diseases.

Health Agenda magazine
January 2017

Recent research indicates that your teeth and gums can be an indicator of your general health and help to flag potential problems. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why regular dental checks and oral hygiene are important.

About 44 per cent of adults have an annual dental check, but more than 40 per cent of Australian households earning less than $30,000 a year avoid or delay a visit to the dentist because of cost, according to the 2015 Oral health and dental care in Australia report issued by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The number of people with untreated tooth decay ranges from 23.5 per cent in major cities to 37.6 per cent in remote Australia. Gum disease – inflammation of the tissues surrounding the teeth, caused by bacterial infection – affects more than a third of people living in distant regional parts of the country.

“If somebody visits their dentist regularly but they have a high level of gum disease, you have to wonder if something is contributing to their poor oral health,” says Dr Peter Alldritt, Chairman of the Oral Health Committee at the Australian Dental Association.

Links to heart disease

A 2011 report by Dental Health Services Victoria found poor dental health is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and dementia. A 2004 Belgian study showed a strong correlation between heart and gum disease, with 91 per cent of patients diagnosed with cardiovascular problems also suffering from gum disease.

“One theory is that bacteria from the mouth can travel through the bloodstream and set up inflammation elsewhere in the blood vessels in the cardiovascular system,” Dr Alldritt explains. “The other theory is that heart disease and gum disease have common risk factors – like stress, smoking and poor diet – so we see a link,” he adds.

Diabetes, kidney health and dementia

About 1 million Australians currently have diabetes and, if current rates continue, up to 3 million Australians over 25 will have diabetes by the year 2025, reports Baker IDI. Diabetics can have more glucose in their saliva and a dry mouth, which allows plaque to build up on teeth and contributes to gum disease. Gum disease can make it harder to control blood sugar levels too.

“If I had a patient who had gum disease that wasn’t improving it could suggest diabetes, so I’d recommend they see their doctor,” says Dr Alldritt.

Poor oral health is also common in people with chronic kidney disease because a weakened immune system reduces the ability to fight inflammations that can be part of gum disease. A study conducted by Case Western Reserve University in the United States found people who lost all their teeth were more likely to have chronic kidney disease than people who maintained their teeth.

New research published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences shows a possible association between dementia and gum disease, with a bacterium found in chronic gum diseases also appearing in the brains of people with dementia. Bacteria enter the bloodstream through eating, brushing teeth and after invasive dental treatments and may then enter the brain, triggering the release of chemicals that kill brain cells.

Other health alerts

Dental checks can also detect possible signs of cancer. Each year slightly more than 3,000 Australians are diagnosed with head and neck cancers, including cancers of the tongue, gums, mouth, salivary glands and tonsils.

“Dentists look beyond the teeth and gums at the roof of the mouth, the cheeks, the tongue and the back of the throat,” Dr Alldritt says. “We look for lumps, bumps, red or white patches, ulcers – anything that doesn’t belong that could be a sign of oral cancer. It’s often picked up quite late because people don’t notice it. That’s another reason why you need a regular dental check.”

5 steps for good oral health

  1. Brush twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste and clean in between your teeth with floss or small brushes daily
  2. Drink fluoridated tap water – a 2014 National Health and Medical Research Council report showed a 26 to 44 per cent decrease in tooth decay in people who drank fluoridated water
  3. Wear a mouthguard when playing sport as dental injuries can cause pain and loss of teeth
  4. Don’t smoke as it contributes to gum disease and oral cancer
  5. Minimise sugar in your diet. Sugars help bacteria turn into acids that cause decay. If you eat or drink something sugary or acidic, rinse your mouth with water afterwards

More for Teeth

You could get 100% back on a range of diagnostic and preventive services through our More for Teeth program.

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