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A Toothy Matter 

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You've probably heard this before: Your mouth is the gateway to the rest of your body. Mounting evidence shows that poor oral hygiene is often linked with chronic and severe health conditions, like coronary heart disease, stroke, aspiration pneumonia and pancreatic cancer. A person with periodontal disease is nearly twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

"Most people don't realize what happens in the mouth affects the rest of the body," says Dr. Jim Sledge, from the University of Washington's School of Dentistry at the Riverpoint Campus in Spokane. "If you don't have a healthy mouth, the rest of your body is going to suffer,"

Experts agree: Good oral health is a vital part of overall health. So why isn't adult dental care covered under the Affordable Care Act?

Although dental disease is almost entirely preventable with healthy habits — like brushing, flossing and regular teeth cleanings to keep smaller problems from developing into larger ones — many Americans, especially low-income adults, lack access to preventive dental care. As a result, emergency room visits for dental conditions are increasing across the country, and at a high price. A study by the Washington State Hospital Association found that 54,000 dental-related emergency room visits over an 18-month period cost the state more than $36 million.

The good news is the Washington Health Benefit Exchange is considering adding adult and family dental coverage during open enrollment in 2015. In a survey of 1,200 Washington residents by the Washington Dental Service Foundation, four out of five adults agreed that Washington state should provide access to quality dental care for adults who can't afford it. Yet the survey found nearly a third of Washingtonians lack dental coverage, and nearly a quarter haven't seen a dentist for a routine checkup in the past year.

"Somehow the mouth has gotten separated from the rest of the body and seems to have less importance for most people," Sledge says. "The long and short of it is, if your mouth isn't healthy, you really aren't healthy."

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