It is a well-known fact that diabetes often goes hand-in-hand with other chronic conditions, like heart disease, and can cause a range of serious complications including nerve damage and limb amputation. With regards to seeing how diabetes can influence oral and visual health, however, numerous individuals may feel they are in the dark.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently found that one out of every two Americans 30 years or older has periodontal (gum) disease. Gum diseases are infections of the mouth that affect the tissue and bone that hold a person’s teeth in place and can lead to bad breath, abscesses and tooth loss. The risk for gum disease is even higher for the 26 million Americans living with diabetes.
Gum disease can make it hard to control blood sugar levels, and high or uncontrolled levels of glucose in the body can worsen mouth infections. This cycle can cause painful gums and tissue that can eventually result in tooth loss. In fact, gum disease may be a first indicator that a person may not have control of his or her blood sugar level.
Primary care physicians, dental and eye care specialists are teaming up to urge those living with the disease to schedule regular checkups. These visits can help regulate the disease’s impact on oral, vision and overall health. For people who are not aware that they might have diabetes, certain signs and symptoms can actually help diagnose the disease.
“Good dental and vision health – and well-controlled blood sugar – are critical to managing diabetes and preventing serious complications that could affect the mouth and eyes,” says Dr. Michael D. Weitzner, vice president of National Clinical Operations for UnitedHealthcare’s dental business.
“Diabetes has the potential to weaken one’s ability to fight bacteria in the mouth and throughout the body. Unmanaged blood sugar can lead to difficulty fighting infection effectively, paving the way for serious gum disease,” says Dr. John Luther, chief dental officer at UnitedHealthcare. “Because periodontal disease often is painless, people might not know they have it until the damage has already been done.”
In addition to affecting oral health, diabetes also can have a negative impact on vision health.
Diabetic retinopathy, which occurs when the disease damages the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina, is the leading cause of blindness in the United States among people between 20 and 74 years of age. People with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy; the National Eye Institute estimates that between 40 and 45 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have some form of retinopathy. Vision complications related to diabetes extend beyond retinopathy to include increased risk of developing glaucoma and cataracts.
“Eye examinations play a significant role in diagnosing, monitoring and managing diabetes,” says Dr. Linda Chous, chief eye care officer at UnitedHealthcare. “According to the CDC, recent studies show that keeping one’s blood glucose levels close to normal can help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes-related eye disease. All patients with diabetes should receive a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year.”
Changes in vision such as blurriness, seeing spots or persistent redness can be symptomatic of the disease. Other vision-related complications of diabetes that can serve as early indicators of the disease include double vision, dry eyes and lid infection.
This National Diabetes Month, Dr. Luther recommends patients with diabetes take the following four precautions to stay healthy:
1. Check your blood sugar often to ensure you are managing your levels effectively.
2. Schedule regular dental and vision checkups and alert your dentist and eye care professional if you have diabetes.
3. Maintain an oral health care regimen of regular flossing and brushing using toothpaste with an antiplaque or antibacterial ingredient and preferably with an electric toothbrush.
4. Make sure to take normal medications prior to dental and vision visits unless your dentist or doctor instructs otherwise.