I remember feeling jealous of my grandparents as a child. During one of our summer visits, I realized that while my siblings and I were told to brush our teeth, my grandparents would simply pop their teeth out and drop them into a glass. That seemed like a lot less work! Besides, I thought that no teeth would mean no trips to the dentist, and thus no poking and prodding of sharp instruments in my mouth. Although our dentist and his team were unfailingly caring and gentle, I was always nervous.
As I recall, when I expressed my newfound enthusiasm for the convenience of false teeth, Grandma informed me that wearing dentures would mean giving up fresh corn on the cob. That was all the incentive I needed. I kept brushing.
Soon, I realized that a healthy smile meant something more than the ability to enjoy garden bounty. I sensed my tough-as-nails mother and grandmother each were ashamed of their smiles. Without understanding why, I could see that people were judged by the condition of their teeth. Dental health seemed to be an indication of a person’s place in society.
With the benefit of age, and medical training, I learned that the impact of dental disease goes well beyond dietary inconvenience and social embarrassment. People with unhealthy mouths may suffer from malnutrition, which can be both a cause and an effect of their dental problems. Others may unfairly perceive them as less trustworthy, and less employable.
Emergency rooms and medical clinics see the consequences of delayed or absent dental care. Patients seek antibiotics and pain medicines to “get them by” until they can see a dentist. These treatments may convert a raging infection to a smoldering, but temporarily bearable, one. However, they don’t fix the underlying problems.
There is another layer to the interplay between dental and physical health: many medical diseases and their treatments may cause or worsen dental problems. The antidepressant I give a patient might cause dry mouth, which worsens tooth decay. The medicine to prevent a broken hip may severely damage the bone of the jaw. Diabetes increases the risk for dental disease which in turn, can worsen a person’s diabetes management.
Additionally, research shows that poor dental health increases our risk for heart attacks and could possibly lead to premature births.
All in all, there are myriad reasons to take care of our teeth and gums, no matter our age. So, thanks, Grandma, for convincing an impatient child to keep brushing.
Richard P. Holm, MD passed away in March 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is founder of The Prairie Doc. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc on Facebook. Debra Johnston, M.D., is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, S.D.