If you want to give yourself a new-year health kick, take this one simple step: improve your oral hygiene. Dentist Dr Conor Gallagher tellswhy shortly after Christmas, dentist Dr Conor Gallagher saw a schoolgirl in her early teens who proudly admitted that she never brushes her teeth — and didn’t even own a toothbrush.
Shortly after Christmas, dentist Dr Conor Gallagher saw a schoolgirl in her early teens who proudly admitted that she never brushes her teeth — and didn’t even own a toothbrush.
While it is unusual to find a patient who doesn’t own a toothbrush these days, it is still true to say that people are often unaware of the links between poor oral hygiene and a wide range of diseases ranging from diabetes and heart disease to obesity and low sperm count, to name just a few.
In fact, people who brush their teeth for less than two minutes, twice daily, are three times more likely to develop heart disease than those who brush for at least two minutes, twice daily, according to a Japanese study presented to the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions last year.
Several other studies point to similar links between oral hygiene and other systemic inflammatory diseases, so if you want to do one thing to improve your general health this year, it makes sense to improve your oral hygiene, says Dr Gallagher.
A dentist with 31 years’ experience, Dr Gallagher has a keen interest in oral health education and plans to launch a new dental service company called Dental Fit Kit. It will supply oral hygiene products on a subscription basis and run an online oral health education programme.
He has witnessed, first-hand, the effect poor oral hygiene has had on his patients’ general health, something that is backed up by years of scientific research.
He can often tell a lot about a patient’s lifestyle, past and present, simply by looking at a person’s mouth. It has been said that the condition of the teeth is a social barometer and he has found that to be true.
For instance, he can tell a patient’s diet and dental care routine at a glance and sometimes lasting damage has been done in childhood.
However, damaged teeth and gums can also have long-term health implications. Gum disease (gingivitis and periodontitis) is an inflammatory disease that adds significantly to the inflammatory burden of your body which, in turn, greatly increases the risk of inflammatory diseases and other health problems.
For example, studies show that pregnant women with gum disease are more likely to have underweight babies. Research also suggests that women whose gum disease gets worse during pregnancy have an even higher risk of giving birth prematurely but, says Dr Gallagher, treating gum disease properly during pregnancy can reduce the risk of premature birth.
Preventable, poor oral health can also increase the risk of a number of other diseases and conditions, including asthma, low sperm count, pancreatic cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, even dementia
The link between oral disease and dementia was first established in a landmark American study of 678 Catholic nuns aged between 75 and 103. Aptly named the Nun Study, it found that people who lost teeth due to gum disease were at the highest risk of developing dementia.
The vast body of research linking poor oral health to disease makes for a sobering read, but there is also very good news: improving your oral health couldn’t be easier.
“Set a reminder on your calendar or phone to change your toothbrush every three months. It really can be that simple,” Dr Gallagher says.
Yet, that message appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Just last year, 37% of HSE dentists said that they saw children with neglected teeth, at least daily, according to a study published in the Journal of the Irish Dental Association. Tooth decay is still the most common chronic disease among Irish children, yet Irish parents were found to have limited knowledge on how best to care for their children’s oral health.
The dentists who were surveyed said dental neglect was not always considered neglect because of a lack of awareness and a failure to prioritise oral health in our society.
Dr Gallagher couldn’t agree more. Part of the problem, among some adults at least, is the tendency to focus on cosmetic solutions as opposed to treating dental problems, he says.
“Recently, a young woman asked if I thought it was a good idea to go abroad to have a number of veneers done on her upper teeth because it was ‘fantastic value’. I said, ‘They are your teeth and you have to make the decision yourself, however, maybe get those fillings done and sort out your gums before you decide on veneers.
The younger generation especially will actively seek out cosmetic solutions for their teeth before they even consider the health of their teeth and the potential damage they are doing for the future
Dr Gallagher adds that a speaker at a recent meeting of dental professionals quipped that dentists and their families seemed to suffer from ‘Porcelain Deficiency Syndrome’. What he meant was that dentists were much more reluctant than their patients to opt for crowns and veneers because they were wary of traumatising teeth without any real justification.
Having said that, the trend towards whitening and veneers is not as extreme as an experience Dr Gallagher had while working in rural Ireland many years ago when a young bride-to-be came into the surgery and asked him to remove all of her perfectly healthy teeth.
“When I asked her why such a request, she replied that it was part of her ‘dowry’ so that her husband wouldn’t have to pay for expensive dental treatments in the future.”
He didn’t carry out the work and doesn’t know what happened in that case, but in so many others he has seen the damage caused by poor oral care. For more on the links between oral health and disease.