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Dental Health and the Big Picture


Published Jan 19, 2021 • by AHIP

Next time you get out your toothbrush, just remember that you’re not only benefiting your teeth and gums. While the exact connection is still unknown, oral health has long been linked with improved overall health. In addition to known correlations with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, scientists are also studying the connection between oral health and dementia later in life.

A study from the National Institute on Aging found that older adults with signs of gum disease were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s during the course of the study. What’s unknown is the cause—whether oral bacteria can make its way into the bloodstream and then to the brain, or whether gum disease can lead to other chronic health conditions already known to increase the risk for dementia.

“We know that good preventive oral health care means better overall health as individuals who have at least one cleaning a year are often more engaged with their overall health,” said Dr. Cary Sun, chief dental officer at Cigna. “We also know that visits to the dentist can help flag early warning signs for other chronic conditions as well as impact one’s ability to manage their conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.”

Preventive dental care pays off

A 2019 study from Cigna found that practicing good preventive dental care can save patients money, as well as reduce the number of emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

A global health crisis (like COVID-19) can severely strain health care systems. The proper management and treatment of periodontal disease has the potential to decrease medical costs and reduce hospital admissions and complications related to chronic diseases, studies suggest.

“If you’re dealing with a chronic condition, it is important to take care of any periodontal disease,” says Tom Meyers, Vice President of Product Policy at AHIP. “We need to recognize the link between these conditions.”

Health insurance providers are keeping dental care accessible

Dental providers have long employed rigorous sanitization and cleaning protocols to keep patients healthy and have only stepped up these procedures during the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that patients can safely get the care they need. And health insurance providers are providing additional help, including increased access to coverage and telehealth dental benefits, assistance with access to PPE, and financial support for some providers.

Stress affects oral health

Routine dental care may not be top of mind for many patients at the moment, but some dentists say they are seeing more patients with cracked teeth from grinding or clenching. As Dr. Sun points out, “The pandemic has created more stress, anxiety, and impacts to our mental well-being, which can manifest itself with oral health changes. And it’s important to recognize the early warning signs to intervene as soon as possible and limit any possible damage.”

“The smart thing to do is take care of your oral health,” said Myers. “Maintain a regimen of visiting your dentist, and make sure that you don’t develop a periodontal condition that could complicate your ability to manage your conditions.”