There has been of late an endless stream of articles and opinion pieces trumpeting the associations between oral and systemic health. Yet despite ever-increasing clinical and scientific evidence pointing to interrelationships between oral diseases and other conditions such as periodontitis and diabetes1 or cardiovascular disease,2 it has been difficult for dentistry to convince other professions and the public of the importance of such associations.
Should oral health and systemic health actually be considered two different entities? If we look at how the profession has publicized this emerging field of study, it would certainly seem so. In fact, by continuing to write and talk about the associations between oral and systemic health, dentistry is reinforcing the perception that—despite our protestations to the contrary—there is a difference between your ‘oral’ and your ‘systemic’ health. If this perception is allowed to persist, it will never be possible to discuss the oral health–systemic health connection in a convincing manner, as this choice of words unintentionally separates the mouth from the rest of the body.
Aren’t We Really Talking about Oral Health and Overall Health?
We propose that the associations between oral diseases and other diseases elsewhere in the body be discussed within the context of oral and overall health, much in the same way a physician would. For instance, a medical doctor would refer to a patient’s diabetes (a disease of the pancreas) as an endocrine disease that has a negative impact on overall health, including various organ and physiological systems. You are unlikely to hear a physician refer to a patient’s pancreatic and systemic health!
Even if we began using the words ‘oral’ and ‘non-oral’ health, this would serve our purposes better than referring to oral and systemic health—as if oral health and systemic health were not one and the same, or at the very least two sides of the same coin.
When discussing oral diseases, such as periodontitis and caries, we must remember that all we are doing is referring to a particular inflammatory or infectious disease that happens to be located in the mouth as a consequence of certain anatomically unique features found there. But many people incorrectly assume that such diseases would not be expected to have effects elsewhere in the body.
Considering all of these issues, we propose that when referring to oral diseases and their impact on other diseases and systems in the body, dentists refrain from using terminology that reinforces separateness between oral health and systemic health. Instead, research and treatment in this area should be framed by terminology which does not imply that diseases in the mouth are somehow separate conditions that (surprise, surprise!) have effects on other conditions in the body.
It would be far more productive and convincing if we began referring to oral health and overall health. After all, if a person has an oral disease, the person is simply not healthy. Conversely, if a person has a healthy mouth and does not have disease in other parts of the body, that person is healthy. Period.
- Yuen HK, Wolf BJ, Bandyopadhyay D, Magruder KM, Salinas CF, London SD. Oral health knowledge and behavior among adults with diabetes. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2009;86(3):239-46. Epub 2009 Oct 2.
- Amabile N, Susini G, Pettenati-Soubayroux I, Bonello L, Gil JM, Arques S, et al. Severity of periodontal disease correlates to inflammatory systemic status and independently predicts the presence and angiographic extent of stable coronary artery disease. J Intern Med. 2008;263(6):644-52.