Protecting Our Health, Protecting Our Nation

Mid section of man applying toothpaste on brush in bathroom at home

The Office of the Surgeon General sees a silent epidemic of oral diseases, affecting those who are most vulnerable—children who live in poverty, older adults, and many adults in racial and ethnic minority groups. Dr. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States, includes oral health among the nation’s most pressing health concerns (along with the opioid epidemic and creating links among community health, economic prosperity, and national security). One important step in protecting our nation’s health is to improve access to oral health.

Dr. Adams commissioned an update to the 2000 Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health in America—the only Surgeon General report on oral health ever published. The 2000 report documented disparities related to the determinants of health, such as access to care, age, gender, medical status, and race and ethnicity. In other words, oral health and well-being are not achieved at the same level, often due to those factors.

The new report will document the progress in oral health since 2000, identify knowledge gaps, and share a public health vision for the future. Dr. Adams believes it’s essential to see oral health as a public health issue, and it’s important to acknowledge the importance of oral health to overall health and well-being.

The mouth is often referred to as a window to the health of the body. Oral health plays an important role in overall health.

When Aging and Disability Services presents oral health information in the community, it is surprising how many people believe that oral health is what happens in the dentist’s office—not what they do (or don’t do) for their own oral care. Many do not know the importance of brushing their natural teeth, using a soft toothbrush, the importance of flossing and/or proper care of dentures.

Over the last two months, we have conducted oral health assessments in three different senior centers in King County. We are analyzing the data collected through this assessment to tailor an oral health education program that responds to the specific needs of this population.

In the next six months, we will implement an oral health education program in the same senior centers and evaluate the program by survey upon completion. The program will identify and train at least three older adults to become oral health community champions using a peer-to-peer model that has been vital to the success of evidence-based chronic disease self-management programs. Older adults benefit from their peers’ wisdom, experience, and support. This program will be available for replication in other senior centers in King County.

Protecting Our Health, Protecting Our Nation. Let’s start by ensuring a healthy mouth for all!

Contributors Mary Pat O’Leary and Sheila Mary work at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. Mary Pat is a Registered Nurse and planner. Sheila is an intern who is pursuing degrees in naturopathic medicine and public health at Bastyr University. Previously, Sheila attended medical school in Haiti and worked as a dentist in Haiti and a dental hygienist in Florida.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of AgeWise King County.