A dentist at the examines a dental X-ray. Courtesy Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center

While people might prioritize physical and mental well-being, many may not put the words “dental” and “health” next to each other in their minds.

“Dental work is cosmetic,” they might say, as they put off seeing the dentist for another year. “Everyone has problems with their teeth. Besides, my insurance doesn’t cover it.”

To those people, I would say simply that the mouth-body connection is real. Oral health is often a gateway into our overall health. In fact, neglecting your mouth’s health can actually be life-threatening in some cases, and that’s something everyone—from doctors to insurers to patients and their caretakers—needs to know right now.

April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. More than 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, whether in their lips, mouth, tongue, or throat. Symptoms of oral cancer can be as obvious as lip sores that don’t heal, difficulty swallowing, and reddish/white patches inside the mouth, or not immediately obvious, like ear pain and loose teeth. Most notably, most patients who are newly diagnosed with oral cancer are senior citizens aged 55 and above, with the average age for diagnosis at 62.

Karen Becerra

Factors like ongoing irritation from poorly fitting dentures, long-term heavy use of tobacco and alcohol, contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV), and family history also greatly increase this risk—but people can reduce their chances of developing oral cancer with just a few simple steps, such as quitting smoking or never starting, using alcohol only in moderation, and regular visits to a dentist.

Unfortunately, the same senior-citizen demographic who are most likely to develop oral cancer are the least likely to have reliable dental care—and that is a problem. One in four seniors have no teeth left at all, due to oral health concerns, and 70 percent of seniors have no dental insurance. The group that is most in need of oral cancer screenings often can’t afford critical dental care that could save their lives.

The nonprofit Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center aims to solve these problems—and it’s made a difference in hundreds of seniors’ lives, as patient Gary O. can attest. After being diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015, Gary was referred by his hematologist to our nonprofit for services.

“My cancer diagnosis came during a time in my life where I found myself without health insurance,” recalls Gary. “I lost my livelihood, I couldn’t walk because I was dizzy, and I had compounding oral health issues because of my radiation treatment.”

“Finding the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center was great. They provided affordable treatment for all of my issues, and I honestly feel so much better now.”

Since opening our doors in downtown San Diego over two years ago, the Senior Dental Center has helped hundreds of seniors access low-cost dental services over the course of more than 8,000 visits. On average the clinical team identifies about 5 to 10 suspicious lesions per month. When a mucosal lesion is identified, additional follow up and attention to its characteristics is recommended to rule out any dental cause.

As some oral pre-malignant lesions and early oral cancers are quite varied in appearance they typically require additional follow up with a biopsy for final diagnosis. Oral cancer usually doesn’t cause any symptoms in its early stages, therefore paying close attention to changes becomes critical. Early detection is key for saving lives.

The need for senior dental care is large and growing. And due to overwhelming need for services in North County, we plan to open a new location in San Marcos.

This month make it a priority to get checked by a dentist or dental hygienist if you haven’t done so in a while. If you’re a caretaker for an aging loved one, make sure they get screened for oral cancer next time they go to a dentist. Early detection means better treatment outcomes, so don’t wait.

Karen Becerra, DDS, MPH, is the CEO and Dental Director of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center and a past president of the Hispanic Dental Association of San Diego. She brings two decades of clinical research and expertise as a practicing dentist to help establish the center. To learn more or to make a donation, visit www.seniordentalcenter.org.

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