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Oral Health in an Aging Nation: An Unmet Public Health Challenge

Recent research suggests that oral health is closely tied to overall physical health, and poor oral health could play a role in a wide range of diseases like diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. As such, it is becoming clear that obtaining good oral healthcare services is just as important as getting quality medical care. However, 1 in 5 Americans 65 and older have untreated cavities, and over 70% have periodontal disease. Research!America and Colgate-Palmolive hosted a Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday, October 4 in Washington, D.C. to discuss oral health challenges facing older adults in the United States featuring top experts in the fields of public health and dentistry.

Dr. Michael Alfano, President of the Santa Fe Group, discussed new findings linking poor oral health to poor overall health. “People who get dental care, especially periodontal care, have much lower total healthcare costs driven primarily by fewer hospitalizations,” he said, adding that although the results are promising, more research is needed. Increasing access to dental care should continue to be a priority in the meantime, he added.

“We now have a higher percentage of seniors in America that have unmet dental care needs,” said Dr. Marko Vujicic, Chief Economist and Vice President of the Health Policy Institute at the American Dental Association. He contrasted the rising trend of seniors lacking dental care with the declining number of children with unmet dental care needs. One solution proposed by the panel was including basic dental services in Medicare. 

Dr. Judith Jones, Professor and Assistant Dean for Faculty Development and Director of the Center for Clinical Research at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Medicine, shared a story of a patient who neglected his dental problems for years until it finally became an infection that the patient could no longer ignore. She explained that this patient and many others do not go to the dentist because they do not have dental insurance. Including dental care in Medicare would expand access of dental services to many more seniors.

Dr. Beth Truett, President and CEO of Oral Health America, added that there needs to be stronger support for legislation addressing oral health in older adults from advocates. Although oral health is a clinical issue, she stressed that it is also a social issue that could have a large impact on quality of life for older adults across America. Dr. Fotinos Panagakos, Global Director of Scientific Affairs and Research Relations of Colgate, noted that although America has the resources available to provide older Americans with this critical health service, there is still no immediate action to include dental health benefits in Medicare. He also stressed that prevention is key to reducing the need for dental care. Delivering beneficial therapeutics like fluoride toothpaste every day can prevent more serious oral health concerns. He mentioned that public-private partnerships and government investments are critical to improving oral health outcomes among older Americans.