Ex-Surgeon General: "We have tended not to see oral health as a part of overall health"

A dentist works on a patient's teeth iStockPhoto

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(CBS News) While oral care has improved for many people in the United States, it's still a prevalent issue that many health professionals feel does not get enough attention.

"We have tended not to see oral health as a part of overall health and wellbeing," Dr. David Satcher, a former Surgeon General, told HealthPop. "Too often it is viewed as the teeth and the gums and nothing else."

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But, inadequate oral health can be a predictor of many other problems, including infectious disease and immune deficiencies, and can increase the risks of other diseases. While the connection between heart disease and oral health isn't as direct as was believed in the past, Satcher emphasized that infections of the mouth can still lead to problems of the circulatory system. 

Twelve years after he issued a report highlighting and detailing a way to improve access to dental care, Satcher spoke on July 17 at a conference sponsored by the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Sullivan Alliance about the still-present need for better oral health care.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics showed that one in five Americans have an untreated cavity, and 39 percent of children and 52 percent of teens have had a form of dental restoration such as a root canal. And, more preschoolers are showing up to dentists with 10 or more cavities, many needing anesthesia because the work needed to be done is so severe.

While the Centers for Disease Control reports that only 25 percent of non-Hispanic white children between 6 and 8-years-old have untreated tooth decay, 40 percent of Mexican-American children in the same demographic have a pressing dental issue. Satcher believes the most important issue is to get minorities access to dental care. Fifty million Americans live in areas where they can't easily visit a dentist, according to a press release on Satcher's talk.

"In the last 50 years, we've seen a dramatic decrease in tooth decay. We have a lot of people now who still have their natural teeth after the age of 55. But there's still a lot of room to improve. In minorities and the poor, almost 40 percent of the people have untreated cavities," Satcher said.

For children in particular, access can be instrumental in their lives. Not only can preventative measures like sealants be put in place, but parents and children can be taught the importance of good oral hygiene through brushing and flossing.

The Affordable Care Act will provide dental benefits for at least 5 million children, but Satcher is concerned that the U.S. doesn't have enough dental professionals to provide adequate services. With only 20 percent of dentists accepting Medicaid patients and the federal Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) estimating a current shortage of approximately 10,000 dentists, there could be a dental crisis looming in the future, the press release said.

Satcher wants to see more dental therapists, mid-level people who are not as highly trained as a dentist but who can play a major role in reducing cavities and placing dental sealants. Dental therapists currently practice in Alaska and Minnesota, while Connecticut and Oregon are planning pilot projects, and numerous other states have put forward legislation to allow dental therapists, according to the release.

The good news is one way to improve oral health is to live a healthy lifestyle. Satcher said eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and quitting bad habits like smoking also improve one's dental health.

"A lot of the preventative things we talk about for the preventative health of the body can help with overall oral health," he said.

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