What do Babe Ruth and Humphrey Bogart have in common? They developed oral cancer - a deadly disease that will be diagnosed in more than 40,000 Americans this year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Regular screenings for cancers of the mouth and back of the throat are imperative. Patients can expect a survival rate of 80%-90% for early-stage oral cancer.

Unfortunately, most cases aren't diagnosed until oral cancer has progressed. The Centers for Disease and Prevention state that 8,000 people in the U.S. die every year of oral cancer.


First line of defense

As part of a regular dental visit, dentists do more than examine the teeth and gums. They also check for any signs of abnormality in the inner cheeks, palate and tongue. In the event an abnormality is found, patients are alerted to see a physician for further follow-ups.

Americans see their dentists more often than they see doctors. A study at New York University showed that in 2008 nearly 20 million Americans had annual dental checkups, but didn't see a physician.

The mouth has been called the "gateway to the body" for good reason. For example, heart disease and stroke produce bodily inflammation that commonly manifests first in the mouth. Additionally, diabetics are often prone to gum disease and dry mouth, which a dentist could spot in its earliest stages.

Furthermore, smoking and using other forms of tobacco is a leading cause of oral cancer and other illnesses. Researchers also are discovering a link between oral cancer and HPV infections. HPV is the same virus associated with cervical cancer. During a dental checkup, dentists can help patients understand these risk factors and can help promote prevention or guide the patient in implementing disease management.


Detecting problems early

The need for good oral health - and regular visits for dental cleanings and exams - goes far beyond having a healthy smile.

Poor oral health contributes to a number of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and respiratory ailments, because of the way bacteria from even a low-grade gum infection affects the body.

Studies have shown men with gum disease have higher rates of kidney and pancreatic cancer. Periodontal disease can even affect pregnancy as researchers find those with poor dental health are more likely to deliver premature babies.

Businesses in the United States lose more than 164 million hours of work annually because of oral health problems and dental visits.

In addition to lost productivity, ignoring regular dental care can lead to a significant jump in overall health care costs. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Periontology showed that patients with severe periodontal disease had 21% higher health care costs than patients with healthy gums.


Decreased medical expenses

A key to good oral health is convenient access. In 2010, the number of Americans with some form of dental coverage was 57%, according to an enrollment report from the National Association of Dental Plans.

Although that is good news compared to a decline in 2009, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Four out of ten Americans lack any kind of dental benefits, and we know that lack of coverage can mean people don't see their dentists. A 2011 survey for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showed lack of dental insurance was a major reason that people delayed seeking treatment because of the associated cost.

Regardless of your financial situation, oral cancer does not discriminate. It affects people of all industries, including film critic Roger Ebert, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, rat-packer Sammy Davis Jr., and actors Lana Turner and Ben Gazzara. Oral cancer screenings may not seem like a top priority for lowering expenses; however, a dental visit can help employers and employees avoid high-dollar costs associated with chronic disease. Convenient access to dental care can also save someone's life when an exam detects early signs of abnormalities.

Investing in dental benefits that include regular dental visits can certainly contribute to a patient's overall good health, thus lowering overall health care expenses for both employees and employers.

Nicholas M. Kavouklis, DMD, ("Dr. Nick") maintains a general practice in Tampa, Fla., and is the founder of two dental insurance companies. He is president of Argus Dental Plan. Reach him through argusdental.com or (813) 445-4568.

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