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Mouths: A freeway to our bodies

When it comes to oral health, what happens in your mouth doesn’t always stay in your mouth. That’s because the same harmful bacteria that causes gum disease can travel from your mouth directly to the rest of your body, causing larger issues with your overall health.

“Our mouths are a freeway to our body,” said Elizabeth Gordon, an expanded practice dental hygienist with Delta Dental. “Our heart pumps blood all over the body and it carries with it bacteria in our mouths to important organs like our brain, heart and lungs, to name a few. Our mouths have a lot of good and bad bacteria that goes directly into our bloodstream and can cause problems that we wouldn’t expect, otherwise.”

Gordon said poor oral hygiene can leave our mouth susceptible to bacteria colonies that create problems like cavities and gum disease. Bad bacteria can make its way through our bloodstream and potentially creating other problems.

While the connection between oral health and medical health has been debated over the years, new research is beginning to link the two together.

“For years, dentistry and our general health were considered separate problems,” said Gordon. “Things like dental infections and periodontal disease were looked at as separate parts of our body. It was believed that certain bacteria created heart problems, but it wasn’t studied. Now, studies are giving us more information that we didn’t know before.”

Challenges remain

While these findings are starting to show connections between dental health and a person’s overall health, Wendy Neidig, a Dental Professional Relations service representative with Delta Dental, said many challenges still remain, such as having dentists and doctors look for things that are outside of their core competency.

“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a medical provider who really looked at a kid’s mouth,” she said. “They’d look at their tonsils, but not at their teeth. It’s not much to ask a doctor to look for any decay, gum disease, or recession that could lead to other major problems. That’s what needs to happen.”

Gordon agrees. She said it’s going to take both sides working together to help link the two.

“Integrating medical and dental will help ensure the messages are the same,” she said. “Thinking about a patient’s whole health is key. This includes both dentists and doctors asking questions they’ve never asked before. For example, when a doctor sees something, they can recommend a patient go see their dentists, and vice-versa. Patients tend to listen more if their medical doctor tells them they need to see their dentist.”

Breaking down barriers

Delta Dental works directly with providers and members to help break down barriers. The Dental Professional Relations team distributes newsletters and hands out materials at health and wellness fairs to educate them about the connection between dental health and heart health.

“We try to remind and encourage dental providers to put health to the front of their minds when their patients come in, but it’s a challenge because dentists are very focused on what they do,” she said. “It’s hard to think about other things when you are focusing on one tooth. It’s the same for physicians, but we need to change. Hopefully, more education and more awareness will help.”

Delta Dental offers programs that connect dental health with heart health. To help keep bacteria loads and inflammation processes down, Health through Oral Wellness® offers extra cleanings and services to qualified at-risk patients. Oral Health, Total Health provides extra cleanings for patients with diabetes and to pregnant women in their third trimester.

Tips to improve your oral health

Educating people about things they can do each day is a first step. Gordon and Neidig shared some things everyone can do to improve both their oral health and heart health.

  • Rinse with water after every meal. Every time you eat it changes the pH in your mouth to an acidic level. Rinsing helps prevent bacteria from growing. Because decaying food in your mouth helps bacteria grow and multiply, it’s important to clean out any leftover food every time you eat.
  • Make regular dentist visits. Scheduling regular checkups and cleanings with your dentist will keep your teeth clean and your gums healthy. Waiting longer between dental visits creates an environment favorable for bad bacteria to grow and get into the vascular system. When a person with diabetes gets their teeth cleaned, it can lower blood sugar by 10% to 20%! This means getting your teeth cleaned regularly can help control blood sugar.
  • Floss daily. Cleaning between your teeth is essential for removing food and plaque that your toothbrush just can’t reach. The longer food and bacteria remain between your teeth, the higher the amount of bacteria that is in your mouth causing cavities and inflammation.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Almost anything we eat turns to sugar, which becomes go-to food for bacteria. The more you can keep it out, the healthier your mouth is going to be. Eating heathy foods like whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables provides your body with more essential nutrients.

Changing perspectives

As we continue to learn more about the dental health-heart health connection, Gordon said she’s hopeful progress is being made.

“Some people think that dentistry is an elective, that it’s not part of their health. Seeking dental care for your oral health is just as important as medical care because it is part of your overall health,” she said. “Changing these perspectives is an uphill battle. Through our ongoing efforts of integrating medical health, dental health and behavioral health, I’m hopeful we can work together to get the same consistent message out to people.”

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Moda comes from the latin term "modus" and means "a way". We picked it because that's what we are here to do: help our communities find a way to better health.

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