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The Importance of Oral Health in Systemic Health

“Oral health is often overlooked and undervalued,” according to Research!America’s Director of Policy and Programs Sara Chang who opened a Capitol Hill briefing on the topic October 10, 2018. A panel of experts explored issues related to how oral health is connected to systemic health, the need for more research, and policy issues that can help increase understanding of oral health.

Beth Truett, President and CEO of Oral Health America, moderated the discussion. “Oral health has been the subject of research for decades,” she said, “but today there is new recognition” of the role it plays in systemic health. “Many of the solutions needed to change lives begin beyond the (Washington) Beltway, beyond the statehouse, in the labs of researchers,” she added.

 “Many people think dental research is all about caries [cavities],” said Martha Somerman, DDS, PhD, Director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) at the National Institutes of Health, emphasizing that researchers at her institute are looking at issues ranging from cancers, pain, and rare diseases. “We imagine a world where dental, oral, and craniofacial health and diseases are understood in the context of the whole body,” she stated.

Maria Ryan, DDS, PhD, Vice President and Chief Dental Officer at Colgate and President of the American Association for Dental Research, discussed the challenges in “convincing both physicians and laypeople that without oral health, you are not healthy. People think their heads are not connected to their bodies!”

Other speakers noted positive trends among children with oral health. “I would attribute that to pretty good policy,” said Marko Vujicic, PhD, Chief Economist and Vice President of the Health Policy Institute. “We’ve shrunk the number of kids in the U.S. without coverage.” However, he continued, “for adults and seniors we’re seeing very different trends. Among older Americans we’re seeing disparities widen in several indicators. These are things that need to be brought into the debate.”

Research, the panel agreed, is making a difference. Dr. Somerman described the clinical research center at NIDCR, which specializes in diagnosing rare diseases and conditions in patients. Dr. Ryan added: “We know that most of the diseases we treat in the oral cavity are due to risk factors, bacteria, and inflammation. We’ve learned so much more about the bacteria we are addressing, and how people respond to those bacteria. We continue to learn more every day because of the funding coming into the NIDCR.”

The panel also discussed issues related to precision medicine, telehealth, access to dental care, and the importance of cross-disciplinary interactions. “It is not one of us but all of us that drives the kind of outcomes that we’re looking for: that oral health will be recognized as important to systemic health, and that people understand and enjoy a healthy mouth and a healthy body,” said Truett.

Click here to see photos of the event.