Gum disease and depressive thoughts – both are common conditions that people are likely to experience once in their lives, but are these two things linked?
A connection between depression and oral health has been proposed before, but new research reveals that this association may go deeper than originally thought. In a recent study researchers investigated the link between depressive thoughts and the effect these feelings had on periodontal health.
The results indicated that those who did suffer from feelings of sadness, helplessness and other common side effects of depression were up to 20% more likely to experience periodontal disease than those who did not.[i] This provides some interesting insight into the nature of depression and its physical affect on our general health.
Although it has already been established that people suffering from depression are more likely to neglect their oral health, this study went further and suggests that depression also limits the body’s ability to fight off inflammation – one of the most common signs of gum disease. This means that people suffering from depression are more likely to have gum disease that develops in a shorter period of time – quickly leading to significant problems such as periodontitis.
So what does this mean for our patients and the way we provide care? Although we cannot possibly begin to start providing the services of a therapist alongside our usual roles, I think it’s important that we get some measure on people’s mental health, especially if it can so drastically affect their oral health.
This again opens a labyrinth of different problems – is it too personal to ask patients about their mental wellbeing? Some might see it as an invasion of privacy, especially if they feel ashamed for their depression.
I’m all for opening doors and trying to open a broader conversation about mental health – I believe it’s one great leap forward we are taking lately in all areas – so perhaps we can integrate mental health questions into patient assessments? This way we could possibly bypass the awkwardness of asking questions directly whilst still ascertaining if patients require extra attention.
Even if this is not possible, it is important that professionals take the time to ensure practices are welcoming and supportive for patients. If someone is depressed they are likely to feel more anxious about a visit to the dentist. I know many of us are pushed for time as it is, but perhaps offering patients the chance for a cup of tea or a small chat together before treatment could make a world of difference
In the end, research like this study just goes to illustrate that we need to take a more holistic approach to oral health. In the future I think it’s likely that mental health will play a more prominent role in how we assess patients and what treatments we offer, and I for one can’t wait to see how we can make life better for patients struggling with these problems.
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[i] Nascimento, C., Gastal, M., Leite, F., Quevado, L., Peres, K., Peres, M., Horta, B., Barros, F., Demarco, F. Is there an association between depression and periodontitis? A birth cohort study. J Clin Periodontol. 2019 Jan;46(1):31-39