On the other side, the importance of a healthy mouth is never more evident than when we have a problem. We may have the pain of a toothache, or be unable to chew food properly because of lost teeth. We may feel anxiety over the appearance of our smile.
We often take for granted our ability to speak, smile, kiss, smell, taste, touch, chew and swallow. Even without speech our face can convey a world of feelings and emotions through our expressions. Our appearance, self-image and self-esteem are easily affected by our awareness of our mouth, our teeth, and our smile.
Many of us today enjoy good oral health. This is far more than not having a cavity in a tooth or gums that do not bleed. The World Health Organization defines health as a 'complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not just the absence of infirmity.' It follows that oral health also must be more than just the absence of disease, and includes the concept of well-being. Oral health and overall health are inseparable.
Oral health is a needed part of our overall health. Ignoring the signs of oral disease is harmful to our well-being. We need to expand our vision of oral health to mean more than just healthy teeth. It means being free of chronic pain, oral cancers, sores and irritations of the mouth, birth defects, and diseased gum tissue. Good oral health means being able to speak properly and chew foods necessary for good nutrition. It also means having a mouth that reflects a positive self-image and supports self-esteem.
Significant improvement in our oral health has occurred over the last number of decades. This has come about through public health efforts, more access to dental services and better care for our oral health at home.
Today there are still many who suffer from poor oral health and, as a result, have poor overall health. Children and adults still experience tooth decay. Many older adults have no natural teeth left. Some people suffer from chronic pain in jaw joints, oral cancer and cleft palates. Oral diseases can affect us at all ages and times of life from early childhood to old age.
Dental decay in children aged five to 17 years old is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. In Canada, tooth decay in very young children occurs in about six to eight per cent of the population. In certain groups of children this rate can be as high as 65 per cent. Tooth decay often contributes to poor growth and development, speech difficulties, pain and more disease in permanent teeth.
A study of Canadian pre-schoolers with tooth decay showed that 48 per cent complained of pain, and 61 per cent could not eat properly. Millions of hours of school time are lost each year to dental-related illness in children. Adults are affected as well. Most adults show signs of periodontal (gum) diseases. Canadian studies show that in a given month more than one-third of adults experience oral pain. This pain affects the daily activities of one in seven people.
Millions of hours of work time are also lost each year due to dental disease or dental visits. As many as 13 per cent of Canadian adults are unable to chew a full range of foods, and 10 per cent have problems with speech. Fourteen per cent experience a psychological or social impact of poor oral health. These could be enjoying food less, embarrassment over how one’s teeth look, and avoiding laughing or smiling.
Although many of us are keeping most of our teeth for our lifetime, there are still about 30 per cent of the elderly who have lost their teeth. This has a major impact on their ability to chew and to have a full and healthy diet.
Research has found that many elderly people in long-term care facilities have poor oral health and limited access to dental care. Over 8,000 people in North America die from oral cancer each year. Oral diseases not only affect our health and well-being. They require significant dollars to treat and prevent. In 1999 it was estimated that private spending on dental care in Canada reached $6.4 billion.
Many of those who most need dental care find it difficult to afford. Only 53 per cent of Canadians have some type of dental insurance. Those with lower incomes and less access to dental insurance do not visit the dental office as often as those with higher incomes and dental insurance.
It is also important to know that oral diseases have been associated with other general health issues. The mouth has often been considered a 'mirror' that reflects the general well-being of the whole body.
A number of diseases and infections, including the herpes virus, HIV, syphilis and tuberculosis, cause sores in the mouth.
Some medicines cause the mouth to be very dry. This can lead to more dental disease. The use of tobacco not only causes general health concerns but is also a major factor in causing oral disease. People with diabetes are more likely to have problems with gum disease. There is also some evidence that pregnant women with higher levels of gum disease are those more likely to deliver early, low birth weight babies. Gum disease has also been connected with heart disease, stroke and respiratory illness such as pneumonia. It is clearly evident that a strong link exists between our oral health and our overall health.
The good news is that safe, effective measures exist that can prevent disease or improve oral health. These measures include our own daily care for our oral health through proper oral hygiene, diet and lifestyle. Dental care providers are equipped with the latest in technology and science to prevent and repair the effects of oral disease. Regular care from dental professionals aids early detection and treatment of disease.
Good oral health is promoted through water fluoridation, education and public health programs. These are designed to prevent disease and help us obtain the right dental care. There are many overall health benefits to having excellent oral health.