The overlooked impact of the cost of living crisis

Covid pandemic and financial austerity only made health services less accessible


Every dental professional knows that a beautiful smile, far from being simply an aesthetic aspiration or cosmetic goal, is also a crucial indicator of general well-being in the body. Unfortunately, the modern tendency to fixate only on the aesthetic aspects of the smile can often obscure the far more important and compelling reasons for maintaining a healthy mouth.

The direct link between oral and general health has been known for a long-time. Over the past few years, there has been a growing amount of research finding correlations between oral health issues (like tooth decay and gum disease) and more serious conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, and even preterm births and/or low birthweight babies.

For example, a 2021 University of Birmingham study found that patients with a medical history of gum disease were at increased risk of contracting illnesses such as depression and anxiety (by 37%), autoimmune disease (33%), cardiovascular disease (18%), and Type 2 diabetes (26%).

Another study has corroborated the link between periodontitis and adverse outcomes in pregnancy. The chewing of sugar-free gum by pregnant women in Malawi led to a 24% reduction in the rate of preterm delivery.

Recently, there has also been interest in the possible connection between poor oral health and neurodegenerative disorders. One study found that dental health status and the nutritional habits of the patients are reliable predictors for the onset of Alzheimer`s disease.

Studies like these go to show that the mouth is the simplest and most visible litmus test we have for determining the wellness of the body. If your teeth and gums are suffering, so might your heart, lungs, and brain.

Nor are the consequences of poor oral health confined solely to the medical sphere. Whilst individuals pay dearly for dental issues in terms of suffering and discomfort, their struggle with such conditions can also have a broader, societal cost as well.

According to the Oral Health Foundation, conditions such as toothache cost the UK an estimated £105 million annually in sick days – with about one in 20 Brits being forced to take time off work in 2017. This matches the findings of the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy, who in 2016 estimated that about 15,000 employees miss at least one day of work every year due to oral health problems – with one in five saying they would be prepared to call in sick due to toothache.

To put that into perspective, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have calculated that one day of absenteeism per person costs an average of £82.86 to the UK economy.

Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, says: ‘Bad habits such as irregular brushing and sugary diets are contributing to around three in every ten UK adults suffering regular dental pain and tooth decay. It is therefore inevitable that significant numbers of people are taking sick days off work and damaging the productivity of the UK economy’.

As the availability of dental check-ups fall in the wake of the pandemic – and the cost of living crisis lays waste to household budgets – the odds are we will only see the number of dental-related sick days climb in the coming months.

This is a profound wake-up call for health administrators. For every aesthetically perfect smile, there are thousands of patients suffering from debilitating oral conditions that are compromising their overall health, or forcing them to take costly sabbaticals from work to seek treatment.

The main theme of this year`s National Smile Month – which ended on June 16th – was that ‘everyone deserves a healthy smile’. This is undoubtedly true, but not because a beautiful smile is more appealing culturally or aesthetically. Rather, everyone deserves such a smile because it means being free of the burdens and risks associated with poor oral health.

Everyone will be familiar with the mantra: brush twice a day, floss, have regular dental check-ups, and maintain a healthy (read: low sugar) diet. Even chewing sugar-free gum can play an important role in safeguarding the mouth against periodontal disease.

These preventative measures are crucial, yet the scale and cost of our dental challenges will require a more fundamental reappraisal of how dentistry and oral care are administered throughout the country. There’s no easy fix, but the serious thinking needs to start.

Anna Middleton is an award-winning dental hygienist who graduated from the Faculty of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2015. She went on to found London Hygienist, an influential dental brand which has gathered a customer base amongst the public, press, and celebrities alike

13th September 2022