Written by Tin Chun Wong
Living longer or “longevity” is one of humankind’s greatest desires. Today, whether due to advances in science or improved living conditions, or a variety of other factors, people are living longer. This is being a key subject of debate among members of the public, within the government and the media. The figures are stark: 25% of the world’s population - 2 billion people – will be over 60 in 2050. A fifth of these – 400 million – will be over 80.
Our teeth are subject to the most intensive wear and tear in the human body as they are used so heavily on a daily basis. With age, they become smaller, darker, sensitive to hot and cold and more crooked. Fillings fall off because of wear and tear, secondary decay or cracks. Any small abnormality becomes larger as problems intensify - such as a small crack becomes a fracture followed by tooth loss. Gums recede and become unsightly as spaces appear. The gums are easily inflamed and start to bleed, followed by gum diseases and more recession. Dental roots are exposed leading to further sensitivity and root decay. Teeth continue to shift and move as they adjust to the diseases progressing in our mouths. Problems intensify and overlap each other causing pain, discomfort and tooth loss particularly when the general health is compromised with other diseases such as diabetes.
While we have the years, do we have a life? For what is life when, suffering from dental and oral diseases, we cannot smile, cannot eat, cannot speak, cannot socialize with friends or relatives.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has for its campaign “Live longer, add life to your years!” It has also pointed out, the ageing population figures throw out challenges to health systems. On health policy, it can be interpreted as a burden due to the costs it imposes on society. It is important that we reverse this negative thinking by clearly demonstrating that investing in health throughout the life course can reduce the costs of health provision and enable our populations to live full happy lives.
Oral Health is an essential component of good health and good health is a fundamental human right. The role of the dental profession is to help the population to achieve health through good oral health. For over one hundred years, we have known the causes of dental decay and dental diseases. We also know that 98% of dental decay and dental diseases are preventable. For a disease that is generally preventable, human beings have not done well at all to prevent the development and spread of these diseases.
WHO cites dental treatment as the 4th most expensive medical treatment globally. While we know how to prevent the development of most dental diseases, it is common knowledge that the general population allow dental and oral diseases to develop, worsen and wait until the time when treatment becomes necessary.
WHO declares that prevention is the key solution. Prevention of disease development is the most reliable factor in the provision of health. Dental diseases share many common risk factors with other non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and cancer. The most outstanding risk factor is the incidence of sugar intake affecting a high percentage of our population worldwide and now even in younger patients. It was recommended that sugar intake be cut down to 10% of our daily food requirement and WHO now highly recommends that this be reduced further to 5%.
Recent studies confirm the correlation between the number of teeth and life span. Those people who have more teeth in their mouth tend to live longer. Another astounding link is that between the function of the mouth, that is, with more teeth providing better a better bite in eating, development of dementia is reduced. Initial comments on this relate the nervous impulses of teeth generated during eating and swallowing triggering nervous responses in the brain.
The FDI World Dental Federation now recommends that by the age of 80, a person should have at least 20 teeth in order to successfully carry out the functions of the teeth and mouth to maintain health and social life. This again emphasizes the importance of prevention. We must wait no longer in order to defeat these easily preventable dental and oral diseases.