Op-Ed: Dentists are first line of defense in diagnosing diabetes

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photoDr. Ron Inge, Washington Dental Service

Thankfully, many of us have dental insurance allowing us to visit the dentist twice a year. Most of us take advantage of this opportunity because it’s paid for by our employers. We go because we want our smiles bright and white. We go for the free toothbrush.

But now, we’re learning there’s a much more important reason to visit the dentist regularly: our overall medical health. Your mouth, teeth and gums are connected to your general well being in ways that you may not be aware. Dentists are increasingly becoming the first line of defense for many systemic diseases including, respiratory diseases, heart disease and diabetes.

Over the past decade, Washington Dental Service and the Group Health Research Institute, both Seattle-based organizations, have teamed up to sponsor innovative research regarding the links between diabetes and periodontal disease. These studies, many of them conducted by the University of Washington, have proven that the two diseases have a symbiotic relationship and neither can be solved without addressing the other.

One of the most significant discoveries has been the link between dental care and diabetes and with the number of Type 2 diabetes cases reaching epidemic proportion, dental health has to take an even greater part of our overall health.

The 21 million diabetics in the United States, along with the 57 million labeled “pre-diabetic,” face numerous long-term health consequences, including a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, chronic renal failure and retinal disease.

Not only are people with diabetes more susceptible to these diseases, but diabetes is a major risk factor for gum disease, which can affect blood glucose levels making it more difficult to control diabetes. In fact, a recent 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey concluded that periodontal disease led to poor glycemic control, thus increasing the chance of diabetes.

Warning signs for periodontal or gum disease include bleeding, swollen or tender gums, loose permanent teeth, receding gums and changes in the way your teeth or partial dentures fit. Consult with your dentist right away if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

Thankfully, shared studies like the ones the Washington Dental Service and Group Health Research Institute are conducting have begun to push dentists and physicians to collaborate more on diagnosing and treating periodontal disease and diabetes. In 2007, the Seattle-based Institute for Oral Health convened a conference on diabetes and dental care. Many of the papers delivered at the conference advocated for greater cooperation between physicians and dentists and concluded that improved collaboration between medical and dental would not only positively affect patient care, but also provide employers with reduced healthcare costs while still providing their employees with increased wellness. The ability to diagnose diabetes or gum disease early will save more invasive and expensive treatments later.

The ability to diagnose diabetes or gum disease early will save more invasive and expensive treatments later.

Dentists are in a unique position to serve as the unsung hero in early diagnosis. Most patients have the opportunity to visit a dentist twice a year, whereas visits to the doctor are less frequent and many people visit a doctor only when they have an immediate medical issue. With this in mind, Washington Dental Service is educating its network of dentists to pay closer attention to diabetes and general health warning signs and recognize the close correlation dental health has to overall well being.

For diabetics, dental treatment can help maintain blood sugar levels and reduction of the gum disease infection can help diabetics reduce their number of adverse diabetic incidences.

What should you do? For starters, be proactive and keep brushing and flossing. Schedule, and keep your twice-yearly visits to the dentist and make your dentist and hygienist a critical component of your medical team. The more we keep the mouth and body connected, the better off all of us will be and we can hopefully slow the rate of new diabetes cases.

Dr. Ron Inge is Vice President and Dental Director for Washington Dental Service and Executive Director of the Institute for Oral Health.