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Published: Wednesday, 6/13/2007

Dentistry and the whole person

SOME Americans were skeptical when reports first suggested a link between gum disease and other ailments. But more and more dentists are asking patients questions about their overall health.

And although more research is undoubtedly needed, there is one very telling sign that the dentists are on the right track: Increasingly, insurance companies are paying close attention to these findings and urging their clients to take advantage of dental benefits.

It's no secret that when money is tight, many families put off regular visits to the dentist. But there is growing evidence that this is a false economy. Scientists have already linked gum disease to other aspects of poor health. Their discoveries are enough to make even those most faithful about brushing and flossing want to do more.

Researchers believe there's a connection between periodontal disease and heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory illness. They are also looking at possible links between gum disease and oral, colon, cervical, lung, and stomach cancers. Several pregnancy-related problems are also believed directly affected by gum disease, from infertility to pre-eclampsia, and premature and low-birth birth-weight infants.

That's why dental assistants these days are apt to check a patients' blood pressure and want to know about the patient's personal and family illnesses. Good oral hygiene, it seems clear, helps improve overall health. It's especially significant when an insurance giant like Aetna, together with Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, announces that the overall medical costs of patients with heart or vascular disease or diabetes dropped when they got early and regular dental care.

Clearly, good dental hygiene has far more benefits than a mouth full of pearly whites. That's why those twice-yearly trips to the dentist should stay high on families' priority lists.

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