By Holly Carlson MS, RN, CCRN
It is a common oversite that bad breath or loss of teeth are the only result of poor oral health. While these 2 issues are day-to-day consequences that can impact interpersonal interactions and eating, the fact is there are silent consequences also mounting.
The long-term health consequences of poor oral health can include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
- Poor blood sugar control
- Lung infections
- Pregnancy complications and low birth weight
It’s More Than Just A Dentist’s Concern
Dentists dedicated to the care of people who face socioeconomic barriers witness the long-term health consequences first-hand. According to Dr. Jason Van Wagenen DDS from Denver Colorado, “only 50% of ALL people go to the dentist at regular intervals and 50% of all people seen by a dentist have periodontal disease.” Periodontal disease is the failure of the protective mechanism that the gums provide for the teeth. Dr. Van Wagenen states poor oral health evolves into a complex triad of issues as people age. The triad consists of:
- Resurfaced decay and root carries
- Medications that cause dry mouth
- The loss of dexterity
Poor Oral Care Causes Tooth Decay
Dr. Van Wagenen explains that the triad of issues starts with a lack of oral care which causes tooth decay. Poor oral care promotes the build-up of plaque around the teeth and on the gum line. He emphasizes that plaque build-up harbors many different kinds of harmful bacteria causing reoccurring tooth decay and gum recession. Gum recession is an issue because all protective mechanisms are lost and it provides a safe place for bacterium to hide and reproduce unchecked in the mouth.
The primary job of the gums is to protect the teeth. With the loss of the protective tissue and the build up of plaque, bacterium multiplies and freely enters the body. The release of bacterium into the body through the mechanism of swallowing, causes these foundational health issues:
- Infections throughout the body
- Systemic inflammation
- Plaque build-up in other parts of the body
Poor Oral Health Impacts Overall Health
When asked, most people believe their heart and brain are essential for quality and quantity of life. However, what they don’t understand is that poor oral health releases large amounts of bacterium into the body throughout the day causing infection and inflammation in the organs they value the most. This perpetual release of bacterium contributes to the presence of heart disease, dementia, and other long-term health issues (Carlson, 2013).
Research has shown that oral bacterium is able to breech the protective barrier of the central nervous system causing infection. In response, the body mounts a defense by deploying and depositing harmful proteins and building protective plaque in the brain that may contributes to dementia (Carlson, 2013).
So what is the solution?
The best solution is to have good oral hygiene throughout all stages of life. This includes brushing multiple times a day, flossing, and seeing a dentist regularly. If this has not been an option because of socioeconomic issues or just plain disinterest; reversing the damage to the body is impossible but preventing future infection and inflammation can occur.
Holly Carlson Zhao PhD, LPC, founder of the Center for Optimal Brain Health studied the correlation between dental visits and self-rated memory in her doctoral dissertation and found that there is a correlation between brain health and dental visits. She discusses the increase in self-rated memory recall with dental visits and states, “recent dental visits predict better self-rated memory as noteworthy because self-rated memory is recognized as a predictor of dementia. Understanding the relationship between variables that predict dementia such as dental visits and self-rated memory will help scientists encourage individuals to maintain cognitive health. Moreover, such knowledge will enable professionals to develop better disease prevention strategies and treatments” (Carlson, 2013).
Prioritizing Oral Care and Oral Health
If oral health has been neglected for the majority of one’s life or the aging process has created barriers to access or effective treatment, people should partner with their dentist to determine the best treatment plan. Dr. Van Wagenen emphasizes that pulling all teeth and going to a denture is not always the right choice. He states that pulling all teeth naturally leads to the need for dentures which can be challenging for people who have dexterity or other health issues. Individualized treatment plans are a must.
The prioritization of oral health in America continues to be overlooked by individuals and health professionals alike. Research that directly correlates a person’s overall health to their oral health, particularly as they age, has existed for over 2 decades. Yet the collaboration of care between dental and medical providers fails to exist. Oral health directly affects the aging experience and process. There is no better time than now to commit to taking your oral health to the next level.
Carlson, H. I. (2013). Investigating the relationship between recent dental visits, memory, and dementia risk factors. Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA. http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/1459230336?accountid=14667http://mgetit.lib.umich.edu/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info:ofi/enc:UTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/ProQuest+Dissertations+%26+Theses+A%26I&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:dissertat.
Dr. Jason Van Wagenen is a dentist from Denver Colorado who has cared for the elderly and underprivileged populations for over 20 years. His is an expert in individualizing treatment plans that are affordable without compromising care outcomes.