Today’s dentists are trained to detect the early signs of disease elsewhere in your body. Even if you wear dentures, you need regular oral checkups. Your dentist may be able to detect the following five heath risks:

1. Oral cancer

Each year, an estimated 3,200 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed in Canada and about 1,050 Canadians die from the disease. While smokers and heavy drinkers are most at risk for oral cancer, even those who don’t drink or have never smoked could be susceptible. If diagnosed early, oral cancer can often be treated without surgery or chemotherapy.

Toronto dentist Phillip Tzemis says a thorough history, a comprehensive examination of the mouth, head and neck and a Velscope are essential for early detection. “The Velscope is a relatively new tool that shines a blue light into the mouth to highlight unhealthy tissue,” explains Dr. Tzemis. “It’s painless and very quick. If we spot suspicious tissue, we biopsy it or send the patient to an oral pathologist for further assessment.” He cautions that while tools like the Velscope help identify abnormal tissue, they do not diagnose cancer or pre-cancer.

2. Heart disease

Gum disease, heart disease and stroke are linked, and research shows that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease. This theory is supported by the fact that when oral bacteria enter the bloodstream they may become attached to fatty plaques in the coronary arteries and contribute to clot formation. By obstructing blood flow and reducing the flow of nutrients and oxygen the heart needs to function properly, these blood clots may lead to heart attacks.

Inflammation caused by gum disease also increases plaque build-up, which may contribute to swelling of the arteries. People with periodontal diseases — diseases of the gums and the supporting structure, primarily the bones that hold our teeth in place — are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease.

3. Diabetes

Nearly one in four Canadians either has diabetes or pre-diabetes and more than 20 people are diagnosed with the disease each hour. Diabetics are prone to a range of complications, including infection and periodontal disease. Diabetes and halitosis (bad breath) are closely related. “Dentists take bad breath very seriously, especially fruity or nail-polish-remover-like breath, because it may signal diabetic complications requiring immediate medical attention,” says Dr. Tzemis.

Diabetes poses a double-edged problem for oral health. Uncontrolled diabetes increases the risk of periodontal disease and having periodontal disease may make controlling blood sugar more difficult. Dr. Tzemis cautions diabetics to monitor their blood sugar during lengthy dental work to avoid hypoglycaemia. He also points out that diabetes may impede healing and increases the possibility of infection. Plus, diabetics may need antibiotics for dental procedures such as extractions, gum surgery and implants.

4. Respiratory diseases

Considering your mouth’s proximity to your nose and throat, it’s no surprise that bacteria from gum disease may travel to your lungs and trigger respiratory diseases like pneumonia. Bacteria in your throat and mouth can also worsen existing lung conditions, especially if you already suffer from a respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

But did you know periodontal disease can pass through saliva? Your dentist can help you prevent spreading it to your loved ones, especially children.

5. Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Scientists suspect oral health can affect mental function. Researchers recently found a link between mild memory loss and gum disease and are currently studying how this link works and how it might be managed. Good health is the cornerstone of happiness at all stages of life. Your knowledge of oral health issues and a good dose of prevention can make a huge difference in your overall quality of life.