Oral and overall health: why they're so closely related

The link between oral and overall well-being isn't symbolic – it's physical. The mouth is both the primary pathway into the body and an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. There are up to six million bacteria present in a typical person's mouth. Most are harmless, or at least well-controlled by the body's natural defenses – as long as good oral hygiene is practiced. But if that becomes a problem, bacteria can multiply, enter the bloodstream, and spread to other parts of the body.2

According to the Mayo Clinic3, studies suggest that oral bacteria and inflammation associated with gum disease may contribute to any number of serious conditions, including:

  • Endocarditis. This is an infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers or valves, which can occur when bacteria or germs from your mouth spread through your bloodstream and attach to specific areas in your heart.
  • Cardiovascular disease. While the connection is still being studied, research suggests that heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke might be linked to the inflammation and infections of gum disease.
  • Pregnancy and birth complications. Periodontitis (a severe form of gum disease) has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
  • Pneumonia. This and other respiratory conditions can be caused when bacteria in your mouth are pulled into your lungs.

Diabetes can be particularly problematic, resulting in a vicious cycle that's difficult to control. People with diabetes are more susceptible to periodontal disease, making blood sugar management more complicated – and diabetes even worse. And links to other conditions are also being found, including rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's, and dementia.4

Why preventive dental care is so important

Guardian studies5 – and other third-party research – show that regular preventive care can help stem the progression of oral and gum diseases, helping to lessen the risks associated with heart disease, diabetes, and pregnancy. Good dental care can also help improve self-esteem because healthy teeth and gums are important to their feelings about themselves. 

The mouth can also tell you a lot about what's happening in the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 90% of all common diseases have oral symptoms.Just one example: mucosal lesions or sores are common in people who have HIV/AIDS. Consistent preventive care may help with the early detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS and many other conditions.

The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) notes that the importance of oral hygiene and care extends beyond individual well-being. The problems caused by poor oral health can and do affect society at large7:

  • Oral diseases such as cavities can impact a child's ability to learn by causing decreased appetite, depression, and inability to focus attention – all of which can lead to a risk of lower school attendance and learning performance.
  • Children in low-income families with limited access to preventive care will miss three times as many school days due to oral health problems.
  • Consequences for adults can include the painful progression of dental disease, costly hospital use, and missed days at work. 

UIC goes on to note that regular preventive dental care is vital. Many oral disease conditions are preventable with early treatment, including 80% of children's cavities, which could be avoided with dental sealants. And for every dollar spent on preventive dental care - $8 to $50 can be saved in restorative and emergency treatments – and potentially more in additional types of medical treatment.

How dental insurance helps promote oral and general health

To realize the many benefits of regular preventive care, people need to see a dental provider regularly. Yet despite the importance, too many Americans avoid going to the dentist. Like other kinds of medical care, dental procedures can be expensive – and that cost deters many from getting the care they need. Dental insurance helps eliminate that barrier. Guardian researchhas found that:

  • Perceived expense is the #1 reason for skipping dental visits
  • More than 70% of working adults with a dental plan visit the dentist at least once a year – that drops to 40% when there is no insurance.

Research conducted by the NADP reinforces these findings: Americans with dental benefits are more likely to go to the dentist, take their children, receive restorative care, and experience greater overall well-being.

Unlike regular health care plans, dental plans tend to focus on regular preventive care. In fact, some dental plans only cover preventive checkups and basic procedures like filling an oral cavity. That still provides value because there's no reason to let cost get in the way of a checkup – paying for insurance even encourages many people to go to a dentist just to "get their money's worth." Of course, plans are also available to cover more involved procedures and provide even greater value. Consider: 

The cost of a single dental crown

What exactly is a dental crown? A cover or cap that your dentist puts over a tooth to restore its shape and function. It's usually needed after a root canal, or if it has been broken or weakened – but can also be used for cosmetic issues. No matter the reason, it's a procedure that requires a lot of precise work over at least two visits to the dentist. 

  • The dentist prepares the tooth by making an impression to use as a mold for the new crown. Each crown is custom-made for a specific tooth in a particular person's mouth.
  • The outer portion of the tooth is removed and shaped to fit and support the underside of the crown.
  • You get a temporary crown that lets you eat while the permanent crown is being made.
  • When the permanent crown is ready (a week or two later), the dentist inserts it in your mouth, makes any needed adjustments, then cements it into place.

All that work can cost between $500 and $2,500, and the prospect of a big bill may cause some people to delay treatment. A dental plan can help ensure the problem is caught and treated as soon as possible.

How to get dental coverage

If you or your spouse can get dental benefits through work, that's typically your best option. Employers can work with one of the largest dental insurance companies to secure group rates – and sometimes, better benefits – for their employees. But if workplace dental benefits aren't offered, individual plans are also available from dental insurers such as Guardian, who lets you shop for and purchase affordable coverage directly online

If you're purchasing an individual plan, look at the size of the provider network. The more dentists they have, the more likely you are to find a provider you like. (For reference, Guardian networks have over 120,000 providers in 400,000 locations.9 A company that offers a range of plans may also make it easier to compare coverage features and pricing. 

Are you a dental professional? Find out how to join Guardian's growing network of dental benefit providers

Frequently asked questions about oral health

How does oral health affect overall health?

The two are connected in many ways. If uncontrolled, bacteria in the mouth can multiply and enter the bloodstream, affecting other parts of the body. Gum disease, in particular, has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, and even Alzheimer's disease. Tooth decay is one of the most prevalent diseases in America, and it is left untreated in 1 in 5 American adults.7 Even simple cavities can lead to loss of appetite, decreased focus, and depression.

What are the benefits of good oral health?

Good oral health can help control and/or lessen the risk associated with heart disease, diabetes, pregnancy, and other conditions. It can also improve self-esteem because healthy teeth and gums are important to how people feel about themselves.

What are 5 oral health diseases?

Common oral diseases and conditions include8:

  • Tooth decay, which can lead to broken teeth and tooth loss.
  • Gingivitis, or gum disease, is inflammation caused by a build-up of plaque.
  • Periodontal disease is a more serious gum disease caused by untreated gingivitis. The infection can spread to the jaw and bones and lead to an inflammatory response in the body.
  • Sensitive teeth or discomfort caused by hot or cold foods and beverages. It can be a result of thin enamel, receding gums, or other factors.
  • Oral cancer, a diagnosis that affects 50,000 Americans each year. Tobacco use is the most common risk factor for this disease.

What are the signs of poor oral hygiene?

Signs of poor oral care habits and hygiene can include8:

  • Toothache
  • Gum disease, including gingivitis and periodontitis
  • Receding gums
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Sensitivity to hot and cold foods
  • Dry mouth and teeth
  • Any other condition that creates discomfort and health issues

What should I do to improve my oral care?

  • Brush your teeth regularly with a soft-bristle toothbrush
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste
  • Rinse and gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash
  • Regular flossing
  • See a dentist regularly to get a checkup and cleaning
  • Pay attention to oral pain and other warning signs

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