Dental checkups occupy a peculiar place in the public imagination – an acknowledged necessity that is often avoided, its true benefits little understood. In fact, regular dental visits are some of the best, most convenient ways to maintain personal health. Their benefits are wide-ranging, covering issues from heart disease to heartburn (and, naturally, whether your teeth are in ship-shape). Consider the following health issues that your dentist may be able to consult on:
Dentistry is naturally associated with oral health, which turns dentists into front-line detectors in the battle against oral cancers. An 11-year study looking at more than 63,000 biopsies in Ontario, Canada, found hundreds of cases of oral cancer and precancerous lesions discovered by dentists. What’s more is that the number of cases detected seemed to go up over time, indicating that either detection methods were improving or, more ominously, that the number of cancer incidents was on the rise. Whatever it might be, the study reinforces the prime role played by dentists in detecting oral cancers like those caused by HPV, smoking, alcohol use, poor diet, and other risk factors.
The links between oral health and heart disease are both well known and difficult to suss out completely. What seems clear is that poor oral health and heart disease are linked, though the exact relationship isn’t clear. Some studies have proposed that confounding factors – like diet, exercise, smoking, and access to regular medical care – are responsible for the apparent link. The degree of causation, then, may be uncertain, but the overall relationship isn’t: gum disease and poor oral health are common possible indicators of heart disease, high blood pressure, and other vascular issues. And as one study observed, “Dental professionals may be the first line of defense in the detection and referral of a patient suspected of having cardiovascular disease,” so it’s worth appreciating the essential role dentists play in this regard.
Oral health has far-ranging influences on both male and female fertility. Researchers have observed that men’s sperm health can be compromised by poor oral health. Some have also examined possible links between periodontal health and IVF treatments, wondering whether periodontis provides a vector for disease that lowers the chances of conception. Others have compared the impact of gum disease on conception to obesity, which can also delay conception by weeks or months. During pregnancy, a range of birth complications – from preeclampsia to low birth weight – are linked to poor oral health.
Acid reflux, gastro esophageal reflux disease, GERD, or plain old heartburn – whatever you might call it, dentists have a role in its detection. While a burning feeling in the chest is a common symptom of heartburn, a patient may not even know that he or she has the condition. Instead, the first sign might be the gradual decay of a patient’s tooth enamel, caused by the reflux of acid into the throat and mouth and a lack of saliva to balance out the acidity. There are also cancer risks, as the esophageal damage caused by acid reflux has been linked to a higher incidence of esophageal cancer. The problem is more acute when we sleep: as one group of researchers noted, “Sleep-related GERD is particularly insidious as the supine position enhances the proximal migration of gastric contents, and normal saliva production is much reduced.” If you find yourself with unexplained enamel loss, abscesses, cavities, or discolorations, you may be dealing with acid reflux.
Teeth are simply a form of bone, so it makes sense that they’d be impacted by osteoporosis, the gradual weakening of the body’s bones. While osteoporosis isn’t necessarily caused by poor dental hygiene – it’s more of a disease of aging, complicated by menopause and by lack of Vitamin D and calcium – dentists can play an important role in its detection. Gum disease and tooth loss can be indicators of osteoporosis. Even someone who has no teeth might be affected – the loss of bone density could affect the patient’s jaw and how his or her dentures fit.
This is just a broad sampling of the health benefits of regular dental checkups, with more research being done all the time to investigate dentistry’s role in the constellation of human health. Oral hygiene has the potential to impact a range of risk factors and bodily functions, so it’s important to take it seriously. We may once have dreaded the much mythologized dental visit, but in reality, regular dental visits are doing more for our health than we might even realize.
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Jacob Silverman, the author of this article, is a journalist published in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Slat, The Baffler and many other publications.
This article was commissioned by ADSTRA SYSTEMS INC. a leading developer of dental software solutions.