Thursday, April 28, 2016

Beyond Your Mouth: The Social Determinants of Oral Health

April is minority health month, and there’s no better time to focus on dental health—which so profoundly affects the overall health of minorities. As the commemorative month comes to a close, consider the importance of improving the oral health of all (our mission lived each day).

“Oral health implies much more than healthy teeth. The mouth is both a cause and a reflection of individual and population health and well-being,” states a study published in BMC Oral Health. This notion reflects the fact that many of the determinants of dental health go way beyond medical factors—they are behavioral, cultural, social, and economic as well.

For example, tooth decay is a major dental health issue for the United States. And the food we eat plays an important role in this. Foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates help to form plaque acid that attacks tooth enamel. But those who live in food deserts with no access to healthy, nutrient rich food, may be forced to rely heavily on these foods in their diet.

Education also plays an important role in tooth decay. 

  • Adults aged 35–44 years with less than a high school education experience untreated tooth decay nearly three times that of adults with at least some college education.
  • In addition, adults aged 35–44 years with less than a high school education experience destructive periodontal (gum) disease nearly three times that of adults with at least some college education.
Access to fluoride is also key. 
Prior to World War II, Americans were plagued by toothache and tooth loss.  But in 1948 the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research was formed and researchers began demonstrating the effectiveness of fluoride in preventing tooth decay. 

According to a Surgeon General’s report, “Community water fluoridation remains one of the great achievements of public health in the twentieth century—an inexpensive means of improving oral health that benefits all residents of a community, young and old, rich and poor alike.”

While community water fluoridation is highly recommended by nearly all public health, medical and dental organizations, some may still lack this important program. (Check your community’s status in this CDC fluoride finder.)

Dental insurance inequalities also contribute to health disparities, as preventive oral care including check-ups and regular dental cleanings are crucial. That is one reason we created the unique PreventistrySM approach, which not only fully covers most preventive services, but also helps highlight for network dentists those members at higher-risk of tooth decay.

This year’s minority health month theme is Accelerating Health Equity for the Nation. Long past just recognizing health inequalities, this theme calls us to improve our work toward health equity, in part by focusing specifically on the social determinants. 

As you continue to think about this theme—hopefully long past April—don’t forget about the intertwined importance of oral health.