Over the past few years I have started making deliberate steps to take care of my teeth. I mainly got on the oral health kick because I was tired of having my teeth drilled and filled whenever I got a cavity but after taking a course in university and learning about possible links between oral hygiene and heart health, I was doubly motivated to scrub my pearly whites.
Researchers are investigating possibly links between periodontal disease and heart health. Some studies have shown that bacteria in the mouth enter the bloodstream causing inflammation in the blood vessels which can in turn increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. A Scottish study of more than 11,000 adults found that people with poor oral hygiene had a 70% increased chance of developing heart disease compared to those who brush their teeth twice daily. The participants with low oral health also tested positive for proteins in their blood samples that indicate inflammation. The challenge to confirming a definite link between oral health and heart disease is poor oral health is often associated with other risk factors like smoking and a poor diet.
Malnutrition, diet, dirty water and poor hygiene are major contributes to the oral health challenges facing Africa. Risk behaviors like smoking, smokeless tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption increase the chances of getting oral diseases. According to WHO, the incidence of smoking in men is particularly high ranging from 15% of adults in Nigeria to 67% in Kenya. It’s no surprise then that oral cancer is the eighth most common cancer worldwide. Apart from cancer however, there is also a rise in other oral diseases such as noma, acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis and oral conditions of HIV/AIDS not to mention dental cavities (though interestingly are more prevalent in western countries).
In Africa there is a huge disparity between oral health professional and population needs. The ratio of dentists to population is about 1:150,000 in Africa compared to 1:2,000 in many western countries. Due to limited access to care and expensive treatments, teeth are often left untreated leading to disease progression or extracted to relieve pain.
What can be done?
Oral health is a basic part of hygiene. Implementing a program introducing the very basics of brushing and flossing regularly and educating women who can then teach children could be an effective way to spread the importance of good oral hygiene. Within dental schools, emphasis could be made on community health and expanding beyond the cities to rural communities. Fortunately, until infrastructure and policy catch up to Africa’s dental needs, organizations like Dentists without Borders are bringing professionals to communities in developing countries to provide free care for oral ailments.
But as always, change starts with you. Make a healthier life for yourself by taking care of your teeth. The cheapest, most effective way to ward off disease is prevention. Dentists recommend brushing twice a day, flossing regularly, seeking professional dental care every six months and ensuring dentures fit properly. Besides the obvious benefits of fresh breath and a brighter smile, good oral hygiene reduces dental decay, gum inflammation, oral infections that can snowball into other chronic diseases. The take away messege here is brush and floss your teeth!
Margot is a gradute of Cornell University with a B.S. in Biology. She is interested in pursuing graduate school in Public Health and International Development.