Symposium focuses on improving oral health for people across Washington

April 22, 2015
Healthcare leaders discuss state Board of Health recommendations to improve oral and overall health

Healthcare leaders discuss state Board of Health recommendations to improve oral and overall health

Recognizing that good oral health is essential to healthy living and wellness, more than 100 leaders from a variety of health sectors gathered Tuesday to discuss improving oral health in Washington state.

The health of our teeth and gums can impact the rest of the body. Studies have shown that poor oral health in adults can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Tooth decay can affect a child’s development, speech, and ability to succeed in school. There is growing momentum to focus more attention on oral health because it is an easy way to help keep people healthier.

"We’re learning more, all of the time, about the benefits of a healthy mouth for overall health. That is why preventing oral disease is an emerging priority,” said Keith Grellner, chair of the State Board of Health. “It’s important for doctors, dentists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to work together to ensure healthcare includes attention to oral health. Good oral health improves overall health and saves money.”

After conferring with national experts and reviewing reams of scientific evidence, the Washington State Board of Health (SBOH) adopted seven strategies to improve oral health and prevent cavities. For example, the SBOH recommends that more communities consider community water fluoridation and school-based oral health sealant programs. This is the first time the Board of Health has adopted specific recommendations to improve oral health.

Dr. Bob Crittenden, senior health policy advisor for Governor Jay Inslee, spoke at Tuesday's event, along with Beth Truett, president and CEO of Oral Health America, a national organization that promotes greater oral health care access, education, and advocacy. Healthcare professionals, policymakers, and advocates discussed ways to implement the SBOH's recommendations. Promoting greater access to oral health care and proven preventive measures that can lead to fewer cavities, improve health, and lower healthcare costs were themes of the day-long event.

“It’s time to stop separating the mouth from the rest of the body,” said Dr. Bob Crittenden. “Physicians should no longer ignore the teeth and gums to look at the tonsils. If we want to keep people healthy, oral health needs to be addressed. These recommendations are an important step forward to raise awareness that you’re not healthy without a healthy mouth.”

Water fluoridationwas a key topic at the Symposium because it is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent tooth decay. Tooth decay is also expensive to treat. One filling in a single tooth can cost about $2,000 in treatment and maintenance over a lifetime, according to studies.

“For 70 years, water fluoridation has been effectively preventing dental disease,” said Jim Sledge, a dentist and member of the State Board of Health. “More than 200 million Americans drink water with fluoride every day to strengthen teeth. It is time to ensure more people in our state receive the health benefits and cost savings of fluoride.”

“Oral health is critical to overall health. Yet tooth decay and gum disease remain among the most common — and easily preventable — diseases in the US,” said Beth Truett, of Oral Health America. "It is not only a disease of the young, but it affects older adults as well. Healthy aging requires us to recognize that prevention is necessary at all stages of life.”

Tooth decay is the top childhood chronic disease in Washington and in the US. Nearly 20% of children, age 2-19, have untreated cavities, and more than 90% of adults, age 20-64, are reported to have had at least one cavity in their permanent teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gum (periodontal) disease has been linked to serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and pregnancy complications. Tooth decay is the top chronic childhood disease and a leading cause of absenteeism for school-aged children. It can also have serious impacts on speech development and school readiness. For adults, cavities can be expensive to treat and affect work productivity and quality of life.

The Seattle event was the first of two symposia sponsored by the Washington State Board of Health and the Washington Dental Service Foundation to discuss oral health. The other symposium, in Spokane on April 30, is also sponsored by Empire Health Foundation.