Oral health is an integral part of general health and the two cannot be tackled seperately by politicians and the EU, as is the case at the moment - warns Council of European Dentists
Did you know that people with severe periodontal disease are twice as likely to die, of any cause, before the age of 64 as there healthy-mouth counterparts? That premature births can be reduced by more than 80 per cent in pregnant women suffering from periodontal disease, if they receive appropriate dental treatment before the 35th week of pregnancy? Or that one in 10 deaths from pneumonia in elderly people, in nursing homes and hospitals, could be prevented by better oral hygiene?
Investing in prevention is the most cost-effective approach to healthcare. European associations of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives and patients all agree that oral health is an integral part of general health and that the two cannot be tackled seperately. This has significant implications on how we educate our professionals, organise our healthcare and plan our prevention and healthy living promotional campaigns.
But is the correlation between oral and general health sufficently recognised by the policy-makers? In most European countries dental care, other than care for the most vulnerable groups or the most rudimentary treatments, is not convered by national health insurance; conveying the message that taking care of your teeth is somehow less important or optional. We want to get MEPs in the European Parliament to start understanding that the mouth is not seperate from the rest of the body and that oral health must be taken into account when preparing new initiatives affecting the health of citizens. Many of them will be surprised to hear how much impact oral diseases and conditions have on our general health.
Now 2012 is the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations. So part of our discussion has to focus specifically on the oral health of an ageing population. By 2060, 30 per cent of the EU population will be aged 65 years or over. While Europeans today lose their teeth much later in life than their predecessors, oral diseases are very prevalent among the elderly. In one German study, only 0.3 per cent of 65 to 74 year-olds were found to have sound dentition and no caries experience.
Overall, even while the number of natural teeth decreases with ageing, the prevalence of periodontal disease and root caries increases. Nevertheless, oral health of the elderly is often neglected, with the institutionalised elderly being particularly at risk - as they often lose contact with their dentist when they move to a hospital or a nursing home. A lot of work remains to be done to educate the medical and care staff in these institutions about proper oral care and to ensure that the elderly continue to have access to dental exams and treatment even after they leave their home.
Cristian Silviu Bușoi MEP has noted that combating oral and general diseases individually is neither medically effective nor cost-efficient, which is particularly important in this time of austerity and budget cuts across the continent. He has stressed that we have to look at the broader picture and take a multidisciplinary approach to health at national and European level - to ensure that we use our scarce resources in the best way possible. I sincerely hope that our politicians take this message to heart, in order to achieve better future health for all Europeans. Dr Wolfgang Doneus is a practising dentist in the vicinity of Linz, Upper Austria and the president of the Council of European Dentists - a not-for-profit association, which represents more than 330,000 dentists across Europe