Connecting the dots: could a focus on Indigenous oral health see a positive impact on overall health?
Poor oral health is a well-known predictor for chronic disease later in life, and has been linked to many health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia and arthritis.
Sadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally have significantly poorer overall health than other Australians, and have a much lower life expectancy, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people expected to live 10 to 17 years less than other Australians. Chronic diseases are major contributors to this ‘mortality gap’, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing chronic diseases at alarmingly higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians.
Compared to non-Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are:
- 4 times more likely to have diabetes or pre-diabetes
- 1.3 times more likely to have cardiovascular disease
- 3 times more likely to have a major coronary event, like a heart attack.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also have significantly poorer oral health than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Of particular concern is the oral health status of Indigenous children, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children living in Remote and Very Remote communities having the highest incidence of dental decay in Australia, experiencing more than four times the number of untreated decayed surfaces than Indigenous children living in major cities. Many of the children from these Remote and Very Remote communities under the age of 5 years need to be flown to major centres to have teeth extracted under general anaesthesia, a traumatic experience for the entire family.
While childhood oral health disease (dental caries and periodontal disease) can in many cases be prevented with effective oral hygiene routines and dietary changes, it is a sad fact that the oral health of Aboriginal children continues to decline compared to non-Indigenous children.
Things that would help improve the oral health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children include:
- Better access to fresh fruit and vegetables in remote communities, at reasonable prices
- The reduction in consumption of sugary drinks
- Brushing twice daily with a fluoridated toothpaste.
Poor oral health puts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at risk of chronic diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, perpetuating the cycle of poor overall health and reduced life expectancy. Focusing on reducing dental disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children may be one way to improve the future health of the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
At this stage, more support is needed for Aboriginal communities to determine the best way to improve the oral health of their brothers and sisters, and particularly their children. We also need to provide better tools to increase the cultural competencies for non-Indigenous oral health professionals who work within these communities. With community leaders as strong advocates for better oral health, it’s time for all of us to focus on driving change to ultimately see a positive impact on overall health.
As featured in The NT News – 30 August 2017
Additional resources used:
Heart Foundation website https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/for-professionals/aboriginal-health
Oxfam Close the Gap web resource https://www.oxfam.org.au/what-we-do/indigenous-australia/close-the-gap/
Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/other-health-conditions/oral