(CNN)Your teeth are more than just something to chew and smile with. Research is increasingly showing that they can have an effect on your overall health.
Many Americans think their poor oral health is holding them back. In a 2015 survey by the American Dental Association,20% of low-income adults said their mouths and teeth were in bad condition, and 20% of all adults said their unhealthy mouths caused them anxiety, according to Marko Vujicic, chief economist for the association’s Health Policy Institute, who helped conduct the survey.
One thing you may not have to worry about is daily flossing. Recently, the Associated Press investigated the dental association’s statement that “interdental cleaners such as floss are an essential part of taking care of your teeth and gums” and found weak scientific evidence to support this claim.
That said, the most common oral ailments are cavities and gum disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 91% of adults (PDF) have tooth decay, and nearly half of adults have periodontal disease, an advanced form of gum disease caused by overgrowth of bacteria-filled plaque on teeth. Periodontal disease leads to inflammation in the mouth and can destroy the bones that support teeth.
Anyone who has had a cavity or periodontal disease is probably familiar with the pain and possibly embarrassment from the resulting bad breath, discolored teeth and tooth loss. But what many do not know is that these problems may not be confined to their mouths.
The Affordable Care Act will probably do little to increase the number of Americans with dental insurance. Vujicic and his colleagues reviewed the plans for adults on the Health Insurance Marketplace and found that only 1% of them include dental coverage; people can select a stand-alone dental plan on the Marketplace, but they would have to pay a separate premium.
“The ACA has reinforced the separation” of dental health and whole body health, Vujicic said. This separation dates to the 1960s, when the federal government was creating the first Medicaid programs. Twenty-two states still do not offer dental benefits for adults through Medicaid.
In contrast, states are required to provide dental benefits to children through their Medicaid programs, and 28% of the plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace include dental coverage for children. The rates of uninsured are nearly three times lower, about 12%, among children compared with adults in the United States.
“We disconnect the mouth from the body when people turn into adults,” Vujicic said.
It gets even worse for adults older than 65: Medicare programs do not cover any wellness visits or routine dental care, he added. More than 60% of adults 65 and older did not have dental insurance in 2013.
However, Vujicic is hopeful that the number of Americans who have dental benefits will rise, partly because of the growing evidence that oral health could improve other health outcomes. An analysis by him and his colleagues suggested that insurance companies could save $1,799 in health care costs in the first few years after a patient is diagnosed with diabetes by providing periodontal care.