Report: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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The country at large is brushing and flossing itself into a frenzy. So why are some Americans still falling prey to poor oral health? According to a sweeping report issued Thursday by the Surgeon General's office, a disproportionate number of minorities and low-income Americans suffer from cavities, gum disease and oral cancer — even as the rest of the nation continues to chalk up victories over the same ailments. Close to half of the nation's poor blacks and Hispanics have untreated tooth decay, compared with 27 percent of poor whites. Researchers are blaming the disparity on a combination of economic and social factors, including poor diet, lack of affordable dental care and the prevalence of tobacco use and alcohol consumption.

Unfortunately, most of the public views dental health as slightly less important (and less exciting) than cleaning their storm gutters. While most people would rush off to the doctor's office if they tore a ligament or had a cut that wouldn't heal, few seem to view their oral health with the same urgency, says Dr. Marjorie Jeffcoat, Rosen Professor at the University of Alabama School of Dentistry and a coauthor of the report. And while missing a few dentist appointments isn't likely to kill anyone, years of neglect could take their toll — in ways most people might not expect. "We are beginning to see information suggesting that chronic infection in your mouth may increase your risk for conditions ranging from cardiovascular disease to pre-term births," says Dr. Jeffcoat.

How does a little gum inflammation manage to disrupt the entire body? Scientists are still feeling their way through this mystery, but Dr. Jeffcoat presents one possible explanation for one unwanted result of gum disease. "Doctors theorize that bacteria in plaque causes infection, which can lead to inflammation. The inflammation means the body is putting out chemicals to try and fight off the infection. And one of the chemicals the body puts out is prostaglandin, which is very similar to drug used to induce labor." So keep flossing and brushing — and remember, the recommended two minutes is longer than you think.