IN an imaginary hierarchy of health needs, where would you rank oral health? If you are anything like one in three U.S. adults who told Gallup they did not visit a dentist in the past year, you probably would not rank it very high. Certainly, you might put it below check-ups for chronic diseases and below emergency medical procedures. Perhaps, you might tack it next to a vegan diet and omega-three oil pills as a good thing to have but not an essential part of a healthy life. This reaction is understandable—after all, taking care of your teeth can seem like a vanity exercise and going to the dentist is seldom an uplifting experience. But this reaction is also deeply mistaken.
It’s mistaken, first and foremost, because poor oral hygiene can lead to severe negative health outcomes, including chronic disease and emergency medical procedures. A consensus report recently published by American Journal of Cardiology found that people with poor oral health had more heart attacks and gum disease is a risk factor for coronary heart disease. There are also a wide variety of oral diseases linked to poor oral hygiene such as, gingival disease and oral cancer. All of these diseases require serious medical attention and can result in debilitating financial costs (effective treatment of severe gum disease can cost up to 10,000 dollars). Aside from these direct results, poor oral health can impact our lives in subtle yet equally detrimental ways.
Poor dental health changes our behavior for the worse. Not only do people lose self-confidence over their appearance, but dental pain also inhibits normal activity. In 2008, a study from the University of North Carolina concluded that, “Children with poorer oral health status were more likely to experience dental pain, miss school, and perform poorly in school.” That kind of disadvantage at an early age can slow the progress of a child’s development and obstruct their dreams of a better life.
Unfortunately, when it comes to oral health, the burden of our negligence often falls on our children. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Tooth decay is the most common chronic illness among school-age children.” To put that in perspective, tooth decay is five times more prevalent in children than asthma. These statistics get even worse for children from low-income families who face barriers of access to good oral healthcare. The deepest irony of these statistics can also be found in the conclusion of the Kaiser report, stating of tooth decay, “It is almost entirely preventable.”
How then can we reduce the harm and prevalence of bad oral health? We can start by taking simple steps to reduce the risk factors associated with bad oral health such as, an unhealthy diet and smoking. Try to pace the amount of sugary drinks you imbibe and keep them away, as best you can, from your children. We can also practice basic everyday dental habits like flossing and rinsing in front of the mirror with ourselves and our children. Simple reminders, however, are not enough. We need external support and attention to fully realize a change in prevalence of bad oral health. Therefore, on a larger scale, we should to invest in, support, and take of advantage of community initiatives that address oral health—initiatives like Skippy.
Skippy, sponsored by Tri-County Health Network, is a mobile, school-based program wherein registered Dental Hygienists come to a school and provide an oral health exam, identifying possible cavities in children ages 0-12. They also educate children about their teeth and provide fluoride treatment and place sealants when needed. If the network’s navigators identify a problem in the children, they reach out to parents to encourage them to see a dentist. From its inception, Skippy has served 16 schools and over 2,800 children.
It’s time for oral health to ascend our mental hierarchy of health needs. We need to recognize it as a priority, worthy of our attention and diligence. That process of recognition starts with us shaking off the dust of our floss containers and scheduling an appointment with the dentist but it should not end there. It should inform our discussions about health in our communities and families. Only then might we be able to defeat the most prevalent chronic disease among children and the source of innumerable heartaches, not to mention toothaches, in our adult population.