There is a common saying that states, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It gives the notion that preventing disease and illness is driven by eating healthy and maintaining a good diet. It gives the impression that what we consume determines our overall health, and helps avoid visits to the doctor.
While this is true, to some extent, how we manage our oral health can also determine the health of our body. That’s right, maintaining good oral hygiene can help us prevent many diseases. According to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, research shows that 95% of Americans regard their oral health as a critical part of their general well-being.
Good oral hygiene is essential for maintaining good overall health. Imagine what life would be like without a healthy mouth. We use our mouths to talk, to drink and eat, to smile and laugh—all made possible by maintaining healthy teeth and gums. According to the American Dental Association, one in five adult North Carolinians avoid smiling due to the condition of their mouth and teeth, and 15% of adult North Carolinians experience anxiety due to the condition of their mouths and teeth.
In addition to the onset of low self-esteem and mental distress due to poor oral hygiene, gum disease has been particularly linked to chronic diseases, with many studies showing a connection between gum disease and cardiovascular disease. Although preventable, the bacteria in your mouth can cause infection and inflammation that is connected to heart disease, clogged arteries, and even stroke. In recent literature, scientists have determined that poor oral health indicates the presence of atherosclerosis, and they therefore suggest that it might serve as a risk marker of cardiovascular disease. In general, poor oral health is increasingly associated with diabetes, cancer, lung and heart disease, premature births, and progression of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and dementia.
Although research has proven that periodontal disease can be detrimental to the human mind and body, dental health is not always included in health prevention and treatment services, especially for children. As reported by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Division, 15.3% of kindergarten children have untreated tooth decay. In particular, children from poor, rural counties tend to have the highest rates of decay.
Reducing oral health disparities for children at high risk for tooth decay is the best solution for success. The North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) has been working hard to provide dental health access and services for high-need families in rural North Carolina. Last May, NCCAA received a grant from Delta Dental of North Carolina to support families by providing oral health information and dental screenings in local communities. Delta Dental also provided oral healthcare supplies for distribution at NCCAA’s The Big Pop UpTM events.
Oral health exams are essential for achieving good overall health. More initiatives and increased funding resources are needed to increase prevention programs, provide access to oral health care, and encourage beneficial oral hygiene routines for children and families.
Breyah Atkinson, BSPH, CHES is a Social Determinant of Health specialist in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s Fellows Program. NCCAA Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in healthcare, communications, graphic design, IT, public policy, or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, NCCAA, chief communications officer.