Reality bites: lack of awareness of oral health-illness link

A new study reveals many people are unaware of the link between oral health and illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and pregnancy complications.

James Cook University’s Professor Alan Nimmo was part of a team that examined what people knew about the link between oral health and disease – in particular how poor oral health can affect other areas of the body.

“It’s been recognised for decades that systemic inflammation can influence the onset and severity of oral disease and that it goes both ways – inflammation of the gums can affect inflammation in other parts of the body,” said Professor Nimmo.

He said a World Health Organisation study in 2016 reported that more than 3.5 billion people were affected by an oral disease and it’s estimated more than 100 systemic diseases and around 500 medications are associated with oral manifestations, especially in the elderly.

“We know the oral-systemic relationship has accounted for potentially preventable chronic conditions and morbidity worldwide. We wanted to review the knowledge and awareness patients with major systemic conditions had about this and if it was potentially a problem,” said Professor Nimmo.

The team analysed studies from around the world and found about 70 per cent of patients with major systemic conditions had poor knowledge and awareness about the relationship between oral health and their condition.

Professor Nimmo said improvements in health education are particularly necessary for patients with heart disease, bone disease and diabetes.

“A 2019 study in Australia of more than 300 cardiovascular patients found just over half had limited knowledge about the potential impact of poor oral health on cardiac conditions, and three quarters incorrectly thought people with heart problems should avoid dental treatment,” said Professor Nimmo.

He said pregnant women were the most consistent patient group to demonstrate good knowledge of the link between oral health and maternal health across multiple studies.

“But a significant finding was that less than 20 per cent were aware that mum’s oral hygiene can affect their growing baby,” said Professor Nimmo.

He said adult diabetic patients were the most studied population group and the majority had inadequate knowledge and awareness of the link between oral health and their condition.

“Overall, the lack of knowledge was attributed to relevant health information not being shared between health practitioners and patients, in addition to poor health practitioner awareness in the first place.

“Whether it’s through improved health practitioner training and enhanced communication with patients or directly to the population through the media, ultimately, if we want to reduce suffering and improve the quality of life for very many people, improving awareness of the oral-systemic link is essential,” said Professor Nimmo.

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