Good oral health is about more than preventing dentures or cavities and flashing a winning smile. Did you know that regular dental visits can help protect you from some major illnesses? Six major health issues are connected to poor oral care yet a large percentage of older Americans are not getting the dental visits they need. Cleaning our teeth regularly at home and in dental appointments is especially important as we age and become more vulnerable to disease. If you don't have a dentist, only see your dentist when your tooth hurts, are afraid of the dentist, worry about the cost of regular dental visits or think of the dentist only as a place to repair teeth please read on. 

Our view of the body as a collection of separate organs and regions is evolving into a picture of interrelated functions. Our mouths, in fact, are the gateway to the body. They process most things that enter our system: fluid, food, pills, smoke, alcohol etc. Research is now establishing that how we maintain our mouth is linked to our chance of contracting: rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, stroke, respiratory disease, perhaps even cancer and Alzheimer's. Like any gateway it's important to keep our mouths free and clear of plaque to ensure strong health. It is far more economical to practice prevention than to cope with the costs and discomfort of advanced disease.

Regular dental cleanings are especially important because of how we process incoming foods. What we eat and drink tends to sit on the teeth forming plaque which harbors bacteria which will cause tartar if not removed. Only a dentist can remove tartar. Tartar irritates gums which results in inflammation. Inflammation and bacteria host gum disease. 1/3rd of America didn't see a dentist last year consequently almost half of the population over 30 have some form of gum disease. More disturbingly 70% of the population over 65 years of age has a form advanced gum disease, called Periodontal disease, which is the risk factor for major illnesses. 

What causes Periodontal disease? When tartar isn't taken off the teeth bacteria brews in the gums. Some of the bacteria form pockets in your gums that your toothbrush may not be long enough to clean. There, in those pockets, toxic bacteria work to wear down bone. Smoking or a history of smoking is a primary risk factor for forming pockets but it's not the only culprit. Menopause and cancer treatments can impair gums, diabetes increases risk of oral infection, AIDS and some other diseases weaken our resistance to bacterial assault, and over 100 medications cause dry mouth or gum overgrowth both of which can promote gum disease.

How are gum disease and major illness related? Our generation is benefiting from increasing health awareness and the return of results from longitudinal studies launched in the mid nineties. These findings offer concerning information but no one clear causal connection. One way Periodontal disease may trigger illness could happen when bacterium from inflamed gums enters the blood stream. Bits of oral bacterium have been found in blood vessels throughout the body. There they may go on to cause clotting that results in stroke or heart attack. While oral bacteria in the bloodstream is not the same agent that causes plaque in our hearts that's not the case in the connection between Periodontal disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis(RA), Alzheimer's or respiratory illness. The specific oral bacteria that triggers an auto immune response in RA causing comprehensive joint destruction is a specific bacterium that we can find in Periodontal disease. Similarly, an oral bacterial enzyme from periodontal disease has been found in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers and research on mice exposing them to those enzymes appears to cause onset of cognitive decline. Links between periodontal disease and a 14% greater risk of developing melanoma, breast, lung or esophagial cancers are a new discovery and so far cautionary but not well studied. According to Harvard health some of the associations with major illness could be caused by the body's reaction to gum inflammation or to the damage caused by a common risk factor such as smoking. Explore all the links between oral health and major illness and factor this in to your views on visiting the dentist regularly.

People are 67% more likely to have heart disease when oral care is neglected yet many health care plans don't have dental options. Original Medicare, which many older Americans still carry, doesn't and only some of the new Advantage plans do. Even then care for periodontal disease can be largely out of pocket and major illness resulting from uncontrolled oral infection can involve extraordinary expense. With or without insurance you can help prevent or care for periodontal disease by flossing well, using a proxa brush, considering a water pik, and being routine about caring for your teeth.

Afraid of the dentist? Start with teeth cleaning and tell your dentist about your phobia. Your aren't the only one who has those fears. Don't have a dentist? Prioritize finding one today. The website Yelp is one good place to find referrals in your area or ask friends and family. Only seeing your dentist when a tooth hurts? Please update your perspective, pick up your phone and call your dentist for an appointment! Follow his or her advice on teeth cleaning frequency. Worried about the cost? It's understandable still it's important to try to afford teeth cleanings and that cost is much more economical than letting it go. This Spring, consider teeth cleaning along with your usual seasonal cleanups. Think of your dental health as a key to maintaining your overall health and elevate twice a year dental visits like you may elevate exercise, good nutrition and social interaction as ways to stay healthy.