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Diabetes? Heart disease? Osteoporosis? Your dentist may know before you do.

As you age

Bill Radley is 62 and, like many “baby boomers,” he is thinking about retiring in the next few years. He’s worked hard most of his adult life, and he’s looking forward to getting some rest and relaxation while traveling with his wife Susan.

Your dentist may be the first to know

Bill recently scheduled a dentist visit because he had noticed he had bad breath that wouldn’t go away no matter how many times each day he brushed his teeth or used mouthwash. During the oral exam, his dentist also noticed that Bill’s gums seemed red and inflamed and were bleeding. Bill’s dentist advised him to go to his physician for a medical check-up, since his persistent bad breath and bleeding gums could be an early indicator of diabetes.

Bill scheduled a check-up with his physician and took a series of diagnostic blood tests. When the results came back, Bill found out he had diabetes. “I couldn’t believe it!” he said. “I never had a sweet tooth and I’m fairly active, playing golf regularly. Sure, I’m a little overweight, but I just figured it was typical for my age.”

Oral health reflects overall health

Research shows that more than 90 percent of all systemic diseases have oral manifestations, including swollen gums, mouth ulcers, dry mouth and excessive gum problems. Some of these diseases include:

  • Diabetes
  • Leukemia
  • Oral cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease

Baby boomers are especially vulnerable to developing diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease, the risks of which increase with age. Researchers believe that symptoms of these conditions can manifest in the mouth, making dentists key in diagnosing the diseases. For example:

  • Bad breath and bleeding gums could be indicators of diabetes.
  • Dental x-rays can show the first stages of bone loss.
  • A sore and painful jaw could foreshadow an oncoming heart attack.

Seeing the dentist regularly is a good idea

Bill hadn’t visited the dentist in over two years and it had been even longer since he’d been to his physician for a regular check-up. “I wasn’t having any problems other than the usual aches and pains, so I didn’t see any need to go to the dentist or to my doctor. Boy, am I glad that I went to the dentist! If I hadn’t gone to see the dentist about my bad breath, I wouldn’t have discovered my diabetes so soon. Now I can get the treatment I need and prevent it from getting any worse.”

In many cases, a dentist may be the first health care provider to diagnose a health problem in its early stages since many people have regular oral examinations and see their dentist more often than their physician.

What can you do?

Seeing a dentist regularly helps to keep your mouth in top shape and allows your dentist to watch for developments that may point to other health issues. A dental exam can also detect poor nutrition and hygiene, improper jaw alignment and signs of developing oral and overall health problems.

When you visit your dentist, be sure to provide a complete medical history and inform him or her of any recent health developments, even if they seem unrelated to your oral health. In addition, you can play a major role in improving your oral and overall health by following these practices:

  • Brushing your teeth for two to three minutes, twice a day, with fluoridated toothpaste. Be sure to brush along the gumline.
  • Flossing daily to remove plaque from places your toothbrush can’t reach.
  • Eating a healthy diet to provide essential nutrients (vitamins A and C, in particular).
  • Avoiding cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
  • Limiting your alcohol intake.
  • Carefully following your physician’s and dentist’s instructions about health care, including using prescription medications, such as antibiotics, as directed.
  • Seeing your dentist immediately when you have any unusual oral symptoms like bad breath, mouth sores, red or swollen gums or sore jaws.
Source: National survey reveals baby boomers miss links between oral and overall health. Academy of General Dentistry.
Last updated: September 2012

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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