The interconnectivity of our bodies is both amazing and complex. Scientists continue to work on fully understanding the correlation between gum disease — an infection of the gums caused by chronic plaque buildup on teeth — and heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and erectile dysfunction. However, current research does suggest that chronic inflammation in the mouth may increase the risk for developing a variety of systemic health conditions.
Kyle Dosch, D.D.S., dental director at Delta Dental of Washington, believes that although poor oral health has not been proven to cause heart disease, it’s important to know that periodontal (gum) disease is associated with an increased risk for it. “Poor oral health and untreated gum disease increases the risk of infection in the blood, and this can affect a heart’s valves,” he explains.
Dosch says that the most significant correlation actually exists between diabetes and heart disease. The good news is that proper treatment of gum disease can help manage diabetes, and this may lower the risk for heart disease. “The body, including the mouth, and many health conditions are interconnected,” he says.
Education remains paramount, as a recent Delta Dental survey showed that nearly all adults (93%) and parents (96%) claim to consider oral health to be very — if not extremely — important to overall health. Yet it’s undeniable that many of these folks may not understand the serious health issues linked to poor oral health. “Historically oral health and going to the dentist were separate from the diagnosis and treatment of other health conditions,” Dosch explains. “The more dental care can integrate into overall medical care, the more we’ll start to think of the mouth as not being separate from the body, but part of it.”
The connection between oral and overall health is what Delta Dental and Arcora Foundation—the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington — work to raise awareness about. According to Dr. Dosch, Delta Dental does so by frequently publishing and maintaining a library of educational blogs for dentists on a variety of oral and overall health topics, including how gum disease may affect the heart. Arcora Foundation has an initiative called MouthMatters that helps medical professionals integrate preventive oral health services into well child care. In addition, Oral Health Connections is a pilot program in Cowlitz, Spokane, and Thurston counties with the focus to improve the oral health of people with diabetes and pregnant people. The program is a partnership of Washington’s Health Care Authority (Medicaid program) and Arcora Foundation.
In 2020, 41% of the 2.7 million Delta Dental of Washington members received periodontal maintenance services. Periodontitis, or advanced gum disease, can lead to such issues as tooth loss without proper routine maintenance. In 2020, 35% of members had at least one periodontal visit in the previous four years, and then no follow-up visit during the most recent year.
Another oral health concern that can increase with age is oral cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 35,000 cases of mouth, throat and tongue cancer get diagnosed annually – with the average taking place among 62-year-olds. The early stages of oral cancer are typically painless, meaning patients don’t notice the symptoms. Therefore, dentists are often the ones to first notice warning signs like open sores, white or reddish patches, and changes in the lips, tongue and mouth lining.
Most oral disease is almost entirely preventable. Many dentists may be able to help patients prevent oral disease and also detect signs of arthritis, diabetes, diet deficiencies, liver disease and even some autoimmune diseases.
What can you do for a healthy mouth? Brush twice a day with toothpaste containing fluoride, floss daily and visit your dentist regularly.
If Dosch could reiterate one basic yet invaluable piece of wisdom on the subject, it would be, “Being healthy and reducing the risk for heart disease includes having a healthy mouth.”
As the state’s leading dental benefits provider, Delta Dental is committed to improving oral and overall health with no one left behind, including funding for Arcora Foundation in its efforts to advance health equity and expand prevention and access efforts in underserved communities.