With the holiday right around the corner, consider giving someone you love, or even yourself, a very valuable present this season: the gift of oral health.
Unfortunately, too many of us don’t comprehend the toll poor oral health can take on our overall well-being. “Patients don’t realize that their mouth is a portal and can have a lot to do with their medical issues,” says Dr. Carrie Hansen, a family dentist in Parma Heights. She explains that poor oral hygiene many times leads to periodontal disease (a chronic bacterial infection in the gums that destroys the soft tissue and bones supporting teeth). This infection can enter your bloodstream and travel to your arteries in your heart triggering a cycle of inflammation, which may increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Hansen also points out that diabetics have an increased risk of developing periodontal disease, and if professional treatment is abandoned, the disease becomes much harder to control.
Routine dental visits also help find other life-threatening conditions, including respiratory infections, oral cancer, an abscessed tooth and even high blood pressure. She explains that a dentist not only looks at your teeth and gums, but also checks your lips, tongue, tonsils and soft tissues looking for lumps, swellings and discolorations.
Due to the current economy’s effect on this crucial health care need, people are delaying professional dental cleanings and needed procedures. The Center for Health Affairs, representing the interests of hospitals and health care in northeast Ohio, reports that 36 percent of Americans have skipped dental care or checkups during the last year for cost reasons. Hansen says, “People are strapped and putting their money in other areas right now, ahead of dental care.” As a result, she is now seeing more emergency patients with excessive pain, broken teeth and fillings, and chronic periodontal disease, as well as more involved tooth decay ending in costlier repairs, tooth extractions and root canals. She says many of these issues could be avoided if exams and x-rays were performed on a regular basis.
The Ohio Department of Health states that dental care remains the most commonly unmet health-care need today, and approximately 47 percent (about 3.5 million) of adult Ohioans and 17 percent of children (nearly half a million) lack dental coverage. Dr. Nicole Harris, dentist and dental director of Care Alliance Health Center, a Cleveland community health center, says, “We see this everyday in northeast Ohio with people losing their jobs and insurance, or no means to pay out of pocket.” What’s different now in this recession, she explains, is that the population at Care Alliance has become two-fold; it is now a mix. “Our focus has always been on the homeless and underserved, but we are now starting to get people from the suburbs who can’t afford service from their local dentists. We’re being bombarded from all over.”
Happily, a bit of good news has recently hit Care Alliance to help try and meet the high demand. They are one of the local community health centers who have received some of the stimulus money from the federal government through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. For northeast Ohio patients without dental insurance, this recent change will offer a better chance of getting free or reduced-cost dental treatment. “When we received the money, we were able to hire another dentist part time and a dental assistant full time, and that allows us to see more patients,” says Harris. “While trying to keep up with our demand, the stimulus money has definitely helped.”
Harris explains that community health centers are government funded and how much a patient pays for services is based on income. For more information on getting free or reduced-cost dental care and a listing of health centers nearest you, Harris recommends visiting these websites: Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) www.hrsa.gov or United Way First Call For Help at www.211cleveland.org. If you prefer to stick with your own dentist, ask costs up front and plan accordingly. Hansen adds, “If you save a few hundred dollars a year for preventative dental treatment, you’ll save yourself a lot more in the long run.”
Clearly, serious overall health consequences can occur if oral hygiene is not maintained, so Hansen says besides visiting your dentist twice a year, brush your teeth, floss once a day, and keep your intake of alcohol, sugar and acidic juices and athletic-type drinks to a moderate level. Most important, she adds, be aware of what is happening in your mouth and make oral health a priority in your life.