The Importance of Oral Health
Delta Dental of Colorado is not just the state's leading dental benefits company; we are also a nonprofit with a mission to improve the oral health of the communities we serve. For the past several years, Delta Dental of Colorado has been actively promoting the message throughout Colorado that caring for your oral health is important because of the strong connection between oral and overall health. We have partnered with a growing number of leading organizations to ensure Coloradans understand this message as well. The fact sheet below details the physical and financial consequences to poor oral health.
Words of Wellness
In our work with oral health partners in the community, our Delta Dental network providers, our subscribers, and even our Delta Dental employees, we have heard and collected several stories that highlight the real life connection between oral and overall health.
Watch as Delta Dental of Colorado CEO Helen Drexler turns up the volume on the connection between oral and overall health.
Kishore Nayak was understandably taken aback when his dentist recommended he see a cardiologist for a potentially serious heart condition.
“It was surprising to hear a dentist talking about my heart,” Nayak said. “Since I had persistent problems with plaque buildup in my gums, he said there was a good chance I had plaque buildup in my arteries. And that could be deadly.”
It turned out to be excellent advice.
When a cardiologist peeked into Nayak’s heart with a tiny camera, he discovered a 70-percent blockage in Nayak’s right coronary artery. Within hours of the prognosis, Nayak was in surgery getting a stent inserted to free up the blockage.
“That advice from my dentist very likely could have saved my life,” said Nayak, who serves as interim chief information officer for Delta Dental of Colorado.
At the time of his surgery, Nayak was 48 years old and perfectly healthy by most measures. Although he had high cholesterol, he ate right and kept active, even finishing a half marathon.
His periodontist later educated him on some basic health science: Inflammation in the gums is a strong indicator for inflammation elsewhere in the body, including the heart.
“It was surprising,” said Nayak, who lives in Broomfield with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. “We never connect oral health to your overall health. But there is a connection.”
Nayak has a family history of heart disease. His father suffered a heart attack when he was about 60 years old while farming in Nayak’s hometown in India. The village, Kaudkola, is about 50 miles from the closest hospital in Cuttack. His father took an hours-long bus ride to get himself to the hospital, where doctors performed a triple-bypass surgery.
“He’s running strong at 84 now,” Nayak said. “He was one of the lucky ones.”
Nayak had a similar positive outcome from his heart surgery. After doctors placed a stent in his artery, they gave him the all-clear to continue with his life as normal.
“I encourage everyone I know to learn more about the connection between oral and overall health,” Nayak said. “In my case, this knowledge very well could have saved my life.”
Since surviving breast cancer four years ago, Suzanne Hubbard makes sure to consider her patient’s whole health and not just oral health when they come to see her at her dental hygiene practice in Greeley, Colorado.
And that’s a good thing, because this philosophy likely saved at least one life.
One of Hubbard's first patients was a healthy woman in her early 30s. Through casual conversation, Suzanne learned that the woman’s family had a history of cancer. Her mother and sister had both recently passed away, losing their own battles with cancer. At a follow-up visit a few months later, Hubbard noticed swelling in the patient’s throat and irregular bleeding in her gums.
“I told her that her thyroid wasn’t feeling normal and asked her to see her general practitioner for a T3, T4, and TSH test,” says Hubbard. Those bloodwork tests came back showing standard hormone levels. But when she examined the patient’s mouth and throat during her next dental cleaning, she saw the same signs and urged the patient to get a second opinion.
Two weeks later the patient called to let Hubbard know she’d taken her advice and was diagnosed with stage 3 thyroid cancer. The patient had her thyroid removed and is now healthy, and she continues to receive care at the Hubbard Family Dental Hygiene Clinic.
While Hubbard remembers overall health was a priority in dental hygiene school, she thinks it has since fallen off the radar for some practitioners. Research shows only about 25 percent of all providers perform exams inside and outside of the mouth, the same exam that detected the patient’s signs of cancer.
“Sometimes patients aren’t seeing a doctor, so hygienists and dentists can be the first line of defense against something more serious if we spot an irregularity,” says Hubbard. “Sure, sometimes we send cases off that turn out to be nothing, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Five years after experiencing kidney failure, Jeanne Martinez continues to search for a new kidney. But the poor state of her oral health is holding her back.
“I’ve done everything they say I needed to do to get on a kidney donor list,” says Martinez, 62. “It’s just the teeth, that’s the last thing.”
Because organ donation is limited in her home state of Wyoming, Martinez attempted to get on donor lists in Colorado and Utah, with some success. She was put on the list in Colorado, only to be taken off of it because of circulation issues in one leg that doctors felt could complicate the procedure.
She then went to Utah, where she was screened and determined to have too many complications in her mouth to get on the list.
“If you don’t have a healthy mouth, they won’t take you,” Jeanne says. “The dentist told me I needed a lot of work I can’t afford.”
Doctors and dentists perform thorough checks on every patient’s health before they are allowed onto a transplant list. Many health problems - including gum disease and other complications in the mouth - can prevent people from receiving transplants. Bacteria in the mouth that cause symptoms like inflammation, chronic bad breath, and bleeding gums can be an indicator of bacteria elsewhere in the body, which can complicate organ transplant procedures.
Working with the American Transplant Association and Delta Dental of Colorado, Martinez is exploring affordable options to address her oral health and hopes to get on a transplant list in the near future.