COMMENTARY: Oral health is essential for overall health

Nov 8, 2019 | Newsroom

This op-ed was originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly.

By Fred Kiga

In every community, for every person at every age, the health of your mouth is important. Your mouth is the window to the health of the rest of your body, and having good oral health is essential for good overall health. Plus, poor oral health can impact economic mobility. It’s hard to get a job if you are missing teeth or if your teeth have visible decay.

I was one of those kids who resisted brushing and flossing. Fortunately, my parents understood the importance of a healthy mouth and forced me, at least twice a year, to hop on the bus to see our family dentist. As a result, I did not experience dental pain as a child, and for that I am thankful.

But too many kids do not have access to dental care and suffer from painful cavities. Kids in pain from dental problems have difficulty learning, eating, and getting a good night’s sleep. They are absent from school more often. A child who is embarrassed to smile is likely to have problems with communication and self-confidence.

For adults, there is a well-established link between dental disease and serious health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and complications in pregnancy such as underweight infants or preterm births. People in severe pain from dental problems may become dependent on painkillers, often opioids. For older adults, the loss of teeth can make it more difficult to eat and it affects their ability to live independently.

The good news is that cavities and gum disease are preventable, and reduces the likelihood of more serious and expensive oral health issues.

Yet surveys of Washington residents highlight the troubling consequences of disparities in access to dental care. While oral health problems occur in all communities and populations, they are more common among people of color and people with lower incomes. As a state, we can and must do better. Health equity cannot be achieved until people of all backgrounds are able to access quality, affordable, and culturally appropriate dental care. No one should suffer from an easily preventable disease.

Nearly half of lower-income children in the state, and 78 percent of lower-income adults, do not receive essential oral health care.

The Washington State Department of Health Smile Survey showed 16 percent of Asian children, 18 percent of Black children, 15 percent of Latino children, 19 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children, and 26 percent of Pacific Islander children have untreated tooth decay, compared to 10 percent of Caucasian children.

Regular checkups are important, especially for pregnant women and young children. Every child should have an oral health screening by a dentist or doctor by age one.

It’s also important to brush twice a day, floss daily, and eat healthy snacks that are lower in sugar.

Avoid sugary drinks, including juices, soda, and sports drinks. This is very important because large beverage companies are marketing their sugary products to kids. Despite the clever marketing, these sweet drinks are not healthy. Drink water for thirst, fluoridated water is best because it strengthens teeth.

Go to themightymouth.org for tips on staying healthy and to connect with a dentist who accepts your insurance, including Apple Health.

Finally, we urge policymakers to work with us and make oral health a priority. Preventing disease saves money for families, businesses, and taxpayers—and it’s the right thing to do for our community.

Fred Kiga is Board Chair of Arcora Foundation, the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington.