Dental hygiene is a matter that many people take for granted. A majority of Kenyans brush at least once daily, so they can enjoy fresh breath and avoid stinking mouths, which cause embarrassments during social interactions.
Even though the motivation for brushing teeth among many people is to avoid foul breath, health experts note that this side effect is actually less severe, compared to other serious health ailments linked to poor oral health that most people are unaware of.
For instance, past studies have linked oral conditions due to bad hygiene - such as periodontitis (gum disease) - to an increase in diabetes and cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension or heart problems.
More recently, scientists have also discovered that poor oral health could be a contributor to mental health challenges which are increasingly on the rise globally.
A new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) indicates that there is an increased rate of patients developing mental ill-health and heart conditions if they have a medical history of gum disease.
The research was conducted by scientists from the universities of Oxford, Birmingham, Newcastle among other organisations based in the UK.
They analysed data of 64,379 patients who had a recorded history of gum disease and looked at their probability of developing cardiovascular disease as well as mental health conditions like depression and anxiety over a three-year period.
The results of the study showed that patients with a history of gum disease had an increased risk (37 percent) of developing mental problems compared to others that had not suffered from it.
In addition, the findings of the research showed that they were also more likely to develop the autoimmune and cardiovascular disease by 33 percent and 18 percent respectively.
“Poor oral health is extremely common globally. When oral ill-health progresses, it can lead to a substantially reduced quality of life. However, until now, not much has been known about the association of poor oral health and many chronic diseases, particularly mental ill-health.
Therefore, we conducted one of the largest epidemiological [population] studies of its kind to date and found evidence that gum disease appears to be associated with an increased risk of developing these chronic diseases,” stated Dr Joht Singh Chandan, a lead author of the study from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research.
“As gum diseases are very common, their effects may represent a substantial public health burden,” he said.
According to the researchers, the results of the study provided vital confirmation of evidence that has previously either been lacking in strength or has had gaps – particularly the association between oral ill-health and mental ill-health.
They note that an important implication of the findings is the need for effective communication between dental and other healthcare professionals to ensure patients obtain an effective treatment plan targeting both oral and wider health issues, so as to improve their existing overall health and reduce the risk of future illnesses.
“This study strengthens the continually evolving research associating gum disease, in particular and various general health conditions. It reinforces the importance of prevention, early identification and treatment of the condition, as well as the need for members of the public to attend regular oral health checks with a dentist or dental care professional,” stated Dr Devan Raindi, a gum disease specialist at the University of Birmingham’s School of Dentistry.
In Kenya, it is estimated that about one in every four people suffer from a mental health problem. Studies have shown that in health facilities, up to 25 percent and 40 percent of out-patients and in-patients respectively, suffer from mental conditions.
The influx in these cases has been linked to various causes such as substance abuse, economic challenges, conflicts, as well as violence in society.
But now, thanks to the findings of this new research, health experts advise that people should pay keen attention to their oral health as this could also go a long way in preventing mental health challenges.
Heeding this call will require many Kenyans to 'pull up their sock' on oral health and begin taking it more seriously.
Based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, people are supposed to brush their teeth at least twice daily after meals, and especially before going to bed so as to maintain good oral hygiene.
Yet, Ministry of Health statistics from the 2015 Kenya Stepwise survey for non-communicable diseases found that whereas 89 percent of Kenyans clean their teeth once daily, only 36 percent do so twice daily. This needs to change, for improved oral health.