By The Daily Sentinel

An apple day may not keep the doctor away if taking a bite out of that apple results in bleeding gums.

Connections between oral health and overall health “are quite staggering,” says Helen Drexler, the chief executive officer for Delta Dental of Colorado, the state’s largest dental insurer.

A build-up of plaque on the teeth is a result of bacteria in the mouth, which often correlates with a greater chance of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

“It’s shocking, but we’ve forgotten that the mouth is somehow connected to the body,” she told the Sentinel’s editorial board Monday as part of a new statewide campaign to encourage more Coloradans to see a dentist.

More than 90 percent of all systemic diseases are linked to oral health. The good news is that cavities and gum disease are nearly 100 percent preventable. Seeing a dentist regularly can help avoid serious and costly health problems.

The fullest measure of prevention is teaching children proper oral hygiene. A child with a healthy mouth is much more likely to become a healthy adult, which helps address the cost crisis in health care.

To that end, the nonprofit Delta Dental hopes to introduce a new insurance product that will remove all cost barriers for children under 13. That means that treating cavities won’t result in out-of-pocket costs — just like checkup and cleanings.

“My hope is — children taught their parents to wear seat belts, maybe they’ll teach their parents to go to the dentist,” Drexler said.

Visits to dentists among working-age adults are at an all-time low in the United States. More than half of adults with dental benefits don’t see their dentist once a year, Drexler said.

The awareness campaign is intended to encourage more dental visits, but there are “dental deserts” in western Colorado where there aren’t enough dentists to serve the population, especially Medicaid patients.

Delta Dental is a nonprofit insurer that puts its “operating gain,” or profits back into the communities it serves. About half of the net profit funds the Delta Dental Foundation of Colorado, which is primarily focused on eradicating tooth decay in children. The other half goes to the company’s “Community Benefit” program. Last year, the company approved a $1.5 million endowment to the state’s community college system to train hygienists, seen as a critical step to addressing access in rural areas.

Colorado allows hygienists to practice independently, meaning they can offer services independent of a dental practice. With additional certification, they’re authorized to provide temporary fillings, which can be a critical service in underserved areas. Delta Dental’s support of the community college training will be important to the success of a teledentistry pilot program underway.

Another pilot program funded by Delta Dental will establish hygienists in 16 medical clinics across the state, further enhancing the connection between oral and physical health.

Drexler calls efforts to establish good oral health early in a person’s life to avert costly health problems later, “going upstream.”

“We play a critical role in the community by being a nonprofit,” she said. “We can convene the different organizations or provider groups to really talk about what we need to do to address oral health in Colorado.”

That’s a conversation worth having.

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