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Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body

Dentists can spot problems ranging from heart trouble to diabetes

SUNDAY, Jan. 5, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Your eyes may be the window to your soul, but your mouth can often tell your dentist what's going on with the rest of your body.

The links between oral health and overall health are many, dental and other experts now concur.

That's especially true if you're an aging baby boomer who may be susceptible to serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

Over the years, dentists have changed the scope of their exams, partly to catch such diseases in their early stages, says Dr. Craig W. Valentine, a spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry. A look in the mouth by a dentist, he says, can yield a lot of valuable health information.

However, many people aren't taking advantage of this knowledge, according to a recent survey of nearly 300 Americans, aged 45 to 64, that was commissioned by the academy. While 78 percent of those polled say dental care is a vital part of preventive health care, 49 percent admitted they don't visit the dentist every six months as recommended. And 31 percent are in the "kicking and screaming" category -- either they go to the dentist if they have an emergency, such as a terrible toothache, or they never go.

These lapsed patients may be surprised to find out that the modern dental exam has changed quite a bit.

"The exam has changed mainly because of two things," Valentine says. One is more awareness of cancers of the mouth, which dentists now screen for. Another is the growing consensus that a good dentist can help you keep not only your teeth but your overall health in good shape, he says.

"We are asking more questions of our patients," Valentine says.

Many dentists now ask about your saliva quality, what medications you're on, the date of your last physical, and other questions that may not seem to have anything to do with your teeth. From the patient's answers, and their own observations, dentists can piece together conclusions about the patient's overall health -- and perhaps suggest that a physical exam is also in order.

Valentine often hears from his boomer patients, for instance, that they have a burning or sour taste in their mouth. After investigating further, he often suspects they have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, in which stomach acid splashes back up, and refers them to a doctor. The condition can be treated with medication.

Bad breath or bleeding gums can be a symptom of adult onset diabetes, according to the academy. So can dry mouth or receding gums.

Dentists can also tell if you're stressed by examining the mouth, says Dr. Glenn Clark, a professor of oral biology and medicine at University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry.

One telltale sign of stress is bruxism, the grinding or clenching of your teeth, says Clark, another expert who tries to educate the public about the oral health-overall health link.

"Occasionally, the tissues of the mouth will change. Patients may have red spots on their tongue, which can point to immune-related disorders," he adds.

Oral inflammation that doesn't subside is another red flag, Clark says. "If you are immunosuppressed, have leukemia or AIDS, you will have things in the mouth that don't look right, such as ulcerative lesions or gum inflammation," he says.

What about the gum disease-heart disease debate?

"There's been a lot of controversy," Valentine says. Some research says the two are linked, while other studies refute the association. "My feeling is, if someone is not taking good care of their mouth they will have gum disease problems and they are probably not taking good care of the rest of their body, either," he says.

A dental X-ray can even alert a dentist to possible osteoporosis, Valentine says. "If I see bone loss on the X-ray of a tooth, it could be they have plaque around the tooth. But bone loss could be the result of osteoporosis. If so, I send them in for a bone density test."

And as saliva production decreases with age -- and it begins to, Clark says, around age 50 -- the incidence of cavities around the roots of teeth increase, setting up some boomers for a whole new round of cavities.

It's easy to put off the routine trip to the dentist every six months. But dentists urge their patients to think of it not just as a drill-and-fill appointment, but a health check-up.

What To Do

For more information on how oral health mirrors overall health, see the American Dental Association. The ADA also offers details on how your dental needs change with age.

SOURCES: Glenn Clark, D.D.S., professor, oral biology and medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry; Craig W. Valentine, D.M.D., general dentist, Lakeland, Fla., and spokesman, Academy of General Dentistry, Chicago; 2002 survey, Academy of General Dentistry
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