By Craig W. Valentine, DMD, FAGD
By 2010, more than 39 million Americans will be senior citizens, with the oldest of the largest "Baby Boom" generation preparing to celebrate their 65th birthday. These boomers will be the first wave of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
Medical advances will help these patients live longer. Research will continue to make the connection between oral and overall health. General practitioners will continue to learn how systemic diseases and conditions have oral manifestations.
The dental community can expect to continue to see an increased number of older patients with significant health concerns, the symptoms of which may not have been seen before. Baby Boomers looking for the warning signs of adult-onset diseases may be overlooking key symptoms in their mouths that should signal alarms about their overall health.
Click Here to download a .pdf of the surveys.
Dentists are key healthcare partners
More than 90 percent of systemic diseases reveal signs and symptoms in the mouth. Most patients see their dentists on a regular basis more frequently than their physician. We are in a unique position to help our patients. Our mission as general practitioners is no longer to just wipe out dental decay, but to correct diseases in the mouth so that the patient's overall health also benefits.
The dental profession needs to encourage Baby Boomers to pay attention to oral symptoms that may indicate early signs of potentially life-threatening diseases. Knowing about these links isn't enough. Boomers need to take charge of their wellness and discuss these symptoms with their dentist.
According to a survey commissioned by the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), 63 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 45-64) with an oral symptom considered to be a key indicator of a more serious health condition were unaware of the symptom's link to the condition. Boomers' failure to recognize that oral health holds valuable clues could negatively impact their overall health.
By continuing to educate ourselves and members of our dental team about the oral and overall health connection, we can share that information and take a proactive approach to help broaden our patients' awareness about the links between oral and overall health.
As the Baby Boomer population continues to age, being armed with knowledge specific to their oral health care needs will be critical.
Members of the Baby Boomer generation who neglect to visit the dentist every six months may miss important warning signs of a larger health problem. Visiting a dentist twice a year can be the key to good overall health.
Links between oral and overall health
The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease increases with age. Researchers believe that these diseases often manifest themselves in the mouth, making dentists a key player in diagnosis. Consider this (for more detail, see oral/overall health chart):
√ According to the American Diabetes Association, 90 to 95 percent of diabetics suffer from Type 2 diabetes, the onset of which usually occurs after age 45. Bad breath and bleeding gums are often indicators of diabetes. However, only 29 percent of those Boomers surveyed were aware of this connection.
√ The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 44 million Americans are at risk for osteoporosis, particularly menopausal and post-menopausal women, yet 97 percent of Boomers do not discuss their risk of this debilitating disease with their dentist. Dental X-rays may show the first stages of bone loss.
√ The American Heart Association reports heart disease is the top killer of Americans. When people reach the age of 45, their risk of developing heart disease triples. A sore and painful jaw should send a warning signal to older Americans that a heart attack might be looming, but 60 percent of this population did not identify these symptoms as warning signs of a potential heart attack.
While people may lack knowledge about these links, they are not lacking experience with these symptoms. A quarter of Boomers reported that they had exhibited one of these telling signs. Knowledge of these symptoms and their potential indications may help boomers recognize a more serious condition.
Following the release of the Office of the Surgeon General's Report on Oral Health in America, the AGD challenged general dentists to learn more about how the mouth can be the window to the rest of the body, and has offered continuing-education courses to help general dentists learn more about these links.
As we continue to learn more about the links between oral and overall health and as we work together to educate, we can improve the nation's oral health and ultimately, their overall health.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a yearlong series of articles from the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). The AGD and Dental Equipment & Materials are working together throughout 2004 to bring you articles that will help you in your practice.
Craig W. Valentine, DMD, FAGD serves on the Academy of General Dentistry's (AGD) Public Information Council and also serves as a national spokesperson for the AGD. He is a past president of the Florida AGD and is the current Public Information Officer. He has been an AGD Delegate since 1989. Dr. Valentine has maintained a private practice in Lakeland, Florida since 1977. He and his wife Beverly have two grown children and two grandchildren.