A lot of people, maybe even most people, think dental exams and cleanings are solely about taking care of their teeth. In reality, they’re about taking care of your total health, oral and systemic alike.
It’s a point that’s driven home by research just published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina started by gathering data from nearly 2500 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. This included data on gum disease, tooth brushing frequency, mouthwash use, numbers of natural teeth, and dental visits over the decade before their cancer diagnosis.
Analysis showed that people who made frequent dental visits had a 74% survival rate over a five-year period. Those who failed to visit frequently had a 54% survival rate.
And this makes sense. As we’ve noted before, oral cancer screenings like the kind we regularly do here in our office mean earlier detection. One big reason why the mortality rate for oral cancers is so high is that they’re often caught quite late in the disease process. When caught early, successful treatment is far more likely.
Another thing to keep in mind: The researchers’ standard for “frequent” was just 6 visits over the course of 10 years. Most people should see their dentist more often. The general advice is one or two visits per year, or more frequently if you have active gum disease.
You have to wonder a little what the survival rate would be for patients who saw their dentist as often as they should for their needs.
Tooth count – as a measurement of overall oral health – likewise affected oral cancer outcomes. Compared to patients with at least 20 natural teeth, patients with no natural teeth were 15% less likely to survive over a five-year period. (Normal adult dentition is 32 teeth, or 28 for those who had all wisdom teeth removed.)
Interestingly, no significant differences were found related to bleeding gums (a sign of gum disease), mouthwash use, or frequency of tooth brushing.
Nevertheless, the study author stresses that good oral health is necessary to avoid losing teeth. “Maintaining a healthy dentition heavily relies on brushing twice, using floss or interdental brushes and attending regular dentist appointments (at least every six months),” study author Jason Tasoulas told BBC Science Focus.
It’s important to note, though, that this was only an epidemiological study. It can show that occurrences are related, not whether one thing caused another. Still, it offers an important reminder that your regular dental visits matter – and not just because of the opportunity to screen for oral cancer or other potential problems.
These visits are also opportunities for us to check in with you on your home care and answer any questions or concerns that may have arisen for you in the interim, so you have the knowledge and resources to play an active role in maintaining the healthiest mouth possible – one that supports your overall health and well-being.