The dental school at UCSF published an interesting article yesterday that discusses the side effects of radiation therapy for head/neck cancers–namely the loss of saliva production. However, they’ve been able to rebuild these structures again in mice–hopefully success in human study participants will follow one day!

In the meantime, those who’ve undergone this kind of treatment still have to deal with permanent dry mouth. Why is this such a problem? They’ve exchanged one oral health problem for another. Even if oral cancer goes into remission, permanent dry mouth means that individuals don’t have the body’s natural mouth-cleaning agent anymore; and, they may need to stay on medication to mitigate the possibility of tooth decay and periodontal disease. Dry mouth is just one “small” issue of oral cancer, patients my have to undergo treatments to remove portions of their tongue, voicebox, or even jaw tissue.

Because oral cancer can cause such devastating effects, even after treatment, patients–especially high-risk seniors–need to know what they are facing and what to look for:

Oral Cancer: What You Need to Know

Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer, accounting for 30,000 newly diagnosed cases each year – and 8,000 deaths. If not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, oral cancer can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, facial and oral disfigurement and even death.

Who gets oral cancer?

Anyone can get oral cancer. Heavy drinkers and people who smoke or use other tobacco products are at higher risk. Though it is most common in people over age 50, new research indicates that younger people may be developing oral cancers related to human papillomavirus (HPV).

Early detection can save

The good news? The earlier oral cancer is detected and treated, the better the survival rate – which is just one of the many reasons you should visit your dentist regularly. Twice-yearly dental checkups are typically covered with no or a low deductible under most Delta Dental plans.

As part of the exam, your dentist will check for oral cancer indicators, including feeling for lumps or irregular tissue in your mouth, head and neck. A biopsy will be recommended if anything seems concerning or out of the ordinary.

You can learn more about oral cancer screenings at dentaloasisofoc.com/preventive-dentistry/oral-cancer-screenings/

Even though this cancer is common in seniors (and those who drink or smoke heavily), the good news is that it doesn’t have to get out of hand. Dental prevention is key. So what’s the bad news? The bad news is that only a minuscule amount of American seniors actually has dental care that could help prevent cancer:

Infographic: U.S. Seniors Lack Dental Care

A new study published in the December edition of Health Affairs analyzed access to dental care for Medicare beneficiaries, and the findings don’t look good. Only about 10% of older U.S. adults have dental insurance, and, of those who do, they still pay half of all their dental costs out of pocket.

 

The researchers looked at Medicare data to see how seniors with different income levels and types of insurance access dental care. They attributed the overall lack of coverage and high percentage of out-of-pocket spending to larger policy trends, including the exclusion of dental care in Medicare and the changing of insurance benefits for retirees.

 

“Despite the wealth of evidence that oral health is related to physical health, Medicare explicitly excludes dental care from coverage, leaving beneficiaries at risk for tooth decay and periodontal disease and exposed to high out-of-pocket spending,”

 

“Until dental care is appropriately considered to be part of one’s medical care, and financially covered as such, poor oral health will continue to be the ‘silent epidemic’ that impedes improving the quality of life for older adults.”

Dentists and insurance providers should work closely with their patients on flexible payment plans and policies. And patients need to be educated and more concerned about their oral health as they age. No one should have to suffer such severe symptoms and treatments when they could have easily been checked out by a dentist in the beginning!

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