You might eat a balanced diet and squeeze in a mix of cardio and weight-lifting workouts every week to stay healthy. But to be truly healthy, you’ve got to focus on more than just working out and eating well. Believe it or not, you’ve also got to focus on oral health.
The link between oral health and cardiovascular health isn’t new; however, there is new evidence that more closely ties periodontitis, better known as gum disease, to heart attacks and stroke. One study showed that treating oral inflammation caused by gum disease with a topical remedy reduced vascular inflammation, which is a leading risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke.
Heart disease is a serious problem in the United States — one in four people will die of the malady if it goes untreated. It’s also a major expense for Americans, including employees and employers who sponsor their health plans; heart disease costs nearly $1 billion a day in medical care and lost productivity.
Gum disease can affect more than just the heart. For pregnant women, it can also affect unborn babies. The bacteria caused by periodontitis can get into the blood stream and target the fetus, contributing to premature birth or low birth weight. Not only does prematurity and low birth weight put newborns at risk for issues in the beginning of life and learning, as well as developmental issues later on, it’s also costly for a family. In its first year, a preemie can cost around $49,000 in expenses, compared to just $4,551 for an infant who doesn’t experience complications. The March of Dimes reports that pre-term birth costs more than $12 billion in excess healthcare costs.
Diabetics also need to pay special attention to their oral health. In addition to monitoring their feet, eyes, kidneys and heart for complications, they are more prone to periodontitis. A higher risk of gum disease can make it more difficult to control blood glucose, and can also cause disease and infections in the bones that hold teeth in place, making it more difficult to chew. Gum disease may also lead to tooth loss. Diabetes costs the United States $322 billion in a combination of healthcare fees and lost productivity.
It’s important for employers and employees to understand how oral health plays a part in overall health, and that simple, inexpensive treatment can save businesses and plan participants thousands of dollars and countless hours of pain and suffering.
Analyzing claims data is one way to see how oral health might affect employees. The highest number of claims typically comes from cardiovascular, maternity, diabetes and musculoskeletal claims — all of which are exacerbated by periodontitis.
For years, dental health was given a back seat in health plans, wellness initiatives and employee education. Most initiatives focused on preventing heart disease through diet and exercise, and focused little, if at all, on dental care. Many health plans did not — and still do not — include dental coverage, which is a minimal expense compared to other program costs overall. Consequently, employees may simply write off dental care because they may not have a history of cavities. But dental coverage and consistent employee education and communication can help them understand the risks, develop good habits and begin to take their dental health into their own hands.
Employers can work closely with insurance brokers to understand medical and dental coverage, and what their costs and claims are for both. They’ll likely see that medical claims are far higher than dental claims. They can then work together with benefit consultants to create an affordable dental plan, or bridge the gap between dental and medical for those at higher risk for periodontitis issues so that employees can get the treatment they need.
Finally, employers need a long-term communication strategy to educate employees on the value of benefit offerings and the importance of good oral hygiene. They’ll be happy and healthier, and the employer’s medical costs will decrease.