Train dentists to identify diabetes, heart disease, says study. Indian dentists agree

Highlighting the interconnection between oral health and chronic diseases, a study showed that dentists can identify some diseases during routine check-ups.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Nov 21, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Nov 21, 2023 | 9:20 AM

The study was performed by UK-based researchers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that dentists can double as health detectives, uncovering vital clues about patients’ overall well-being during routine dental check-ups?

In a study that involved extensive training of dental staff, important health checks were included, ranging from blood pressure to blood sugar level checks. These dental visits are revealing much more than just cavities, offering early warnings for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

The study, a first of its kind, was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of dental professionals in screening for indicators of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, highlighting the deep interconnection between oral health and chronic diseases.

How can dentists identify chronic diseases?

The study, done by UK-based researchers, sought to explore and confirm the hypothesis that chronic inflammation in the mouth, a common dental issue, has far-reaching impacts on overall health, particularly in managing diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Poor gum health is a sign of diabetes. (Wikimedia Commons)

Poor gum health is a sign of diabetes. (Wikimedia Commons)

The central idea is that persistent low-level chronic inflammation in the mouth could be a primary factor influencing general health. Another critical aspect of the study was to assess the effectiveness of dental practices in screening at-risk groups who might not regularly visit general practitioners.

This included smokers and individuals with high blood pressure, who often access dental services more frequently.

By identifying chronic diseases in their early, asymptomatic stages during dental appointments, the study aimed at leveraging the unique position of dental teams in the healthcare system.

The study also looked at the broader implications of incorporating health screenings in dental practices, such as reducing morbidity, mortality, and overall healthcare costs by preventing the late-stage presentation of chronic diseases.

The potential for dental practices to serve as an effective platform for early diagnosis and referral based on personalised interventions was a key area of focus.

Also read: 3-year-old dies in Kerala after root canal treatment

What did the study find?

The study followed extensive training of dental staff, included checks for blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and waist-to-height ratio.

The authors claim that the results were eye-opening — a staggering 78.4 percent of patients recorded blood pressure values above the normal range, while over half (55.8 percent) had BMIs outside the healthy bracket.

Cholesterol levels were out of range in 16.7 percent of cases, and 3.3 percent of patients had elevated blood glucose levels.

The study concluded that “dental professionals can be successfully trained to deliver health screening interventions. Out-of-range health screening results offer an opportunity to provide targeted health advice for both the oral and general health.”

It recommended more robust alliances between dental and general medical care.

Also read: Your uncleaned dentures can lead to pneumonia, finds study

What do Indian dentists say?

Dr Kiran Kumar, Head of Department, Rajiv Gandhi University of Dental Sciences, agrees that dentists can play a vital role in early health intervention.

Speaking to South First, he says, “Our oral health is a window to our overall health, and as dentists, we are uniquely positioned to detect early signs of systemic health issues.”

Dr Kumar explains that dental students in India study almost all medical streams, except for a few like gynaecology and orthopaedics. Hence, they are well trained to identify certain chronic ailments.

Oral signs of diabetes. (South First)

Oral signs of diabetes. (South First)

He adds, “The connection between dental health and diseases like diabetes has been established for years. Although dentists don’t directly test for blood sugar levels, certain oral health issues can hint at diabetes.”

He explains that if a patient has frequent gum infections, slow healing sores in the mouth, or an unusual increase in cavities, the dentist might suspect diabetes or even cardiac-related issues. These symptoms, noticed during a routine dental check-up, can lead to an accidental finding of a chronic condition, prompting the dentist to recommend further medical evaluation.

He says that even during tooth extractions, especially in patients above 50 years of age, dentists prefer to test for diabetes. Dr Kumar adds, “Out of 10, a minimum of three or four will show up having diabetes.”

Agreeing with this, Dr Ashwin PS, Periodontist and Education Consultant, Curaden India, says, “Your mouth is mirror of general health. Simple oral examination can sometimes provide a hint to the dentist regarding diabetes. There are incidences when we suspect diabetes by oral examination, which have turned out to be true.”

Doctors opine that it may be a good idea to train the dentists to identify these ailments and inform the patient if they need to see a physician or the concerned expert.

Dr Kumar explains, “It’s a great idea to teach dental students how to identify all those diseases, which come under comorbidities. This can help in quick identification.”

Also read: Here are some mistakes people make when brushing their teeth

Childhood disorders can be found too

Speaking to South First, Dr Bhavani Swarna, Chief Practitioner at the Wayne Family Dental in Michigan, USA, highlighted dentists’ role in spotting sleep disorders in children, often linked to jaw alignment issues.

She explains that problems like improper jaw development lead to crowded teeth and narrow dental arches, pushing the tongue back into the throat and causing airway blockages.

This impacts children’s sleep, affecting their growth hormone release and overall development. Conditions like ADHD, asthma, and restless sleep could signal such airway issues.

Dr Swarna advocates for a joint approach, involving routine dental check-ups and possible ENT referrals, to address these conditions effectively.