5 health conditions a dentist may help diagnose

Dental exams mainly focus on oral health. But many people don’t know that dentists are trained to spot signs of other health conditions, too. In fact, more than 100 diseases can show symptoms in the mouth, according to the American Heart Association.1

“A dentist’s training enables them to detect any warning signs or symptoms in the mouth that may show a health condition elsewhere in the body,” explains Suparna Argekar Mahalaha, D.D.S., M.P.H., an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine in Cleveland. 

How a dentist may detect an underlying condition

Besides looking at teeth and gums during an exam, the dentist also looks at the tongue, face, neck, jaw, lips, cheeks and the roof and floor of the mouth.2 These areas may reveal serious health issues such as poor nutrition, stress or gastrointestinal problems.  

“We can potentially see if someone isn’t getting proper nutrition by looking at the quality of their teeth. If they have issues with their enamel, they may be struggling to get the proper vitamins and minerals they need,” says Brandon Meckelberg, D.D.S., a Tallahassee, Florida–based dentist and the owner of several dental practices.  

5 health problems a dentist may discover

Seeing a dentist for routine visits could be the first line of defense in detecting various health problems. “The mouth is very much connected to the rest of the body,” notes Dr. Mahalaha. “Good oral health contributes to good overall health and vice versa.”

1. Gum disease

A dentist may be able to diagnose gum disease, also known as periodontal disease. It affects nearly 70% of people ages 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).3 It’s usually caused by poor brushing and flossing habits, which may lead to a buildup of a sticky film containing bacteria called plaque.

But plaque may also be in the mouth because of an underlying health condition such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the CDC, people with those health problems may be more likely to develop gum disease.3

If there are signs of gum diseaseand the dentist can’t find an obvious explanation for it, they may ask about medical history, any current health issues and what medications are being taken. They may also refer someone to a primary care provider (PCP).

2. Oral cancer

Oral cancer, which includes cancer of the mouth and back of the throat,4 is mostly diagnosed in older people.3 “It’s the most common health condition we’re watching for in our older adult patients,” says Dr. Meckelberg.  

A dentist will do an oral cancer screening during the visit by checking for any swelling, lumps, masses or other abnormalities in the face, lips, jaw and neck. If there’s cause for concern, the dentist may suggest seeing a specialist. 

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members with dental coverage can download the UnitedHealthcare® app to find dental care, manage plan details and more.

3. Diabetes

About 37 million Americans have diabetes, and about 1 in 5 people who have it don’t know that they do, reports the CDC.5 But a dentist may be the first one to detect it. 

That’s because having high blood sugar makes it harder to keep the teeth and gums healthy.6

And that can lead to gum disease, which is one reason why people with diabetes are more likely to have problems with their gums.7 Regular checkups can prevent the complications of gum disease, including pain and tooth loss.7

4. Osteoporosis

A dentist may also recognize the early signs of osteoporosis. That’s a condition of progressive bone loss that puts people at risk for fractures. Many people don’t know they have osteoporosis because there usually aren’t any signs until a bone is broken.8

But a dentist may be able to tell early on. Yearly x-rays can monitor bone loss in the jaw and around the teeth. A dentist may also be able to tell that someone has osteoporosis if they have missing teeth.9 Both of those things may be a sign of low-bone density.  

5. Sleep apnea

When people have obstructive sleep apnea, their breathing stops and starts as they sleep. This health condition is estimated to affect up to one third of adults over the age of 65. If left untreated, sleep apnea is associated with a host of health problems, including strokes, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.10

Luckily, a dentist may be able to tell if a patient has sleep apnea if they have an enlarged tongue or tonsils, a red throat, or a dry mouth. Another sign: Worn-down teeth from grinding or clenching at night.   

“By examining the tongue, throat and neck, plus asking questions about snoring and daytime sleepiness, the dentist may refer the patient to a primary care provider for a sleep apnea evaluation,” Dr. Mahalaha says. 

Even if you’re not having any issues with your teeth, it’s important to see the dentist. They can help make sure your oral health stays in tip-top shape, and they may see signs of a larger health issue that you weren’t even aware of. Prevention and detecting health conditions early are both keys to better outcomes.  

Haven’t had a dental visit in a while? It’s never too late to start taking care of your teeth and gums. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with dental coverage? Sign in to your plan website to review dental benefits and schedule an appointment. 

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Get more to smile about. Have dental coverage? Review coverage and benefits and schedule routine cleanings and exams with a dentist.