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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Winter 2011

Oral Health Closely Linked to Overall Well-Being


VS-Winter11-Oral Health TeethPoor oral health can cause everything from pain and difficulty eating to reduced self-esteem and lost school and work time. But many people don’t realize that dental health is also closely connected to overall health.

“The oral cavity can be viewed as a window to our body, both by providing early warning signs of diseases and through a connection between dental diseases and increased risk for a variety of significant medical conditions,” says David Wong, D.M.D., D.M.Sc., professor and associate dean of research at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Dr. Wong notes that systemic diseases such as HIV and osteoporosis are often first detected through symptoms in the mouth — the appearance of hairy tongue and severe gum infection in the case of HIV and the first stages of bone loss for osteoporosis. Gum disease and other mouth infections can also contribute to problems elsewhere in the body. Gum disease has been linked in studies to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as premature birth. Poor oral health can also make diabetes more difficult to control.

The connection between dental health and overall health can clearly be seen among the elderly. “Oral health is often a contributor to functional decline in elderly patients,” says UCLA geriatrician Brandon Koretz, M.D. Medicare doesn’t cover dental appointments, so many elderly people go without or postpone treatment, which can cause minor problems to worsen. Dental problems in the older population can contribute to eating deficiencies and weight loss, leading to functional declines, Dr. Koretz adds. Moreover, for the frailest patients, including those with dementia, certain types of dental care can be difficult to provide. “This can lead to progression of dental problems that could easily be addressed if treated at an early stage,” Dr. Koretz says.

“There is a growing appreciation within the medical and dental professions of the concept of systems biology, which says that all parts of our body are connected,” Dr. Wong notes. This appreciation has helped to fuel an emerging field of study: salivary diagnostics. UCLA has been at the forefront of research to find early biological clues of disease in saliva, which could greatly assist in efforts to prevent diseases or intervene at a stage when treatment is more likely to sVS-Winter11-Oral Healthucceed. Within a few years, a visit to the dentist could include a saliva test to monitor for oral as well as systemic diseases before symptoms begin to develop, says Dr. Wong, who is part of a research team that discovered salivary markers for developing pancreatic cancer.

The connection between oral health and overall health underscores the importance of thorough brushing and flossing of teeth as well as making regular visits to the dentist, Dr. Wong says. But beyond that, since adults tend to visit a dentist’s office more frequently than a physician’s office, there is a movement to expand the role of the dentist to include routine blood pressure measurements to detect cardiovascular abnormalities, as well as glucose monitoring for individuals at risk for diabetes.

“One-fourth of people with diabetes are not diagnosed, and there are more than 20 million people who are pre-diabetic,” Dr. Wong notes. “Dentists can be a major contributor as a partner with the medical community in conducting screenings and evaluations for diabetes and a number of other life-threatening diseases.”

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