Do you keep an eye on your eyes and teeth? Whether you realize it or not, both are important to your overall health.
Let’s start with the eyes. A comprehensive eye exam can tell you more than if you need new glasses; this can reveal other conditions that could affect your health. Here are some examples:
It is normal for us as we age to develop cataracts that obscure vision. But cloudy eyes in young people can indicate diabetes, a tumor, or other serious conditions. Blurry vision is another indicator of diabetes, and sudden blurred vision – even if it quickly returns to normal – should be evaluated quickly because it can be a precursor of a stroke or migraine.
If you have high blood pressure and an exam of your retinas shows abnormal blood vessels, you may be at increased risk for stroke. Yellow eyes can mean jaundice, which indicates a problem with your liver. And if you have trouble seeing at night (night blindness), the problem could be cataracts, but it could also be vitamin A deficiency. Your mom was right: carrots are good for the eyes!
Macular degeneration is a serious concern as we get older because it robs us of the ability to read, watch TV, or do hobbies. Your eye doctor or optometrist will look for the first signs of macular degeneration. There are supplements, like lutein, that can help, and some forms of macular degeneration can be treated with lasers.
Good dental health is also important for overall health. Our mouths are full of all kinds of bacteria that are generally harmless, but if you don’t brush your teeth and floss regularly, they can grow and cause gum disease and tooth decay. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests that severe gum disease is associated with other conditions such as endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner lining of the heart, the result of bacteria in your bloodstream.
Saliva removes contaminants very well, but some medications, especially decongestants, cause a dry mouth. Since our mouths are the pathways to our respiratory and digestive systems, it pays to keep our mouths clean and healthy.
And it is easy! Brush your teeth, floss, limit sugars, and visit the dentist at least once a year for a thorough exam and cleaning. The longer you wait between appointments, the more likely you are to go wrong. If you have had traumatic experiences with dentists in the past, look for one who performs painless dentistry, sometimes referred to as sedation dentistry, as it uses mild forms of sedation to calm and relax you before any procedure.
Why do many people neglect their vision and oral health? Unfortunately, unless you have good insurance coverage from your employer, eye and dental exams can be expensive. Medicare doesn’t even cover routine dental care unless you’re in a hospital and it’s part of another major treatment. As a result, about two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries do not have dental insurance, so they must bear the full cost of treatment.
Medicare also does not cover eye exams, glasses, contact lenses, or treatment for vision problems.
Some plans offered under the Affordable Care Act and Medicare Advantage plans offer limited coverage, but additional and individual plans for vision and dental care can cost a family hundreds of dollars per month.
What if you can’t afford a trip to the dentist or ophthalmologist? You can get financing from companies specializing in medical care. Ask your doctors if you can spread your payments over a period of several months. You can also determine if you are eligible for a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Medicare Medical Savings Account (MSA).
Meanwhile, help may be on the way.
A recent poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – whether Democrats or Republicans – support adding dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare. U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, whose 2nd District of Illinois stretches from Hyde Park to southern Kankakee County, introduced a bill with Representative Steven Horsford of Nevada that would expand Medicare Part B to cover the most dental procedures, including dentures. And the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health just sent a letter to Congress advocating the expansion of Medicare to include dental coverage.
You can stay healthier – and possibly lower your long-term medical bills – by taking care of your eyes and teeth with regular check-ups. Shop around, ask questions, get quotes in advance, and do your best to take care of these vital systems.
• Teri Dreher is a Board Certified Patient Advocate. A critical care nurse for over 30 years, she is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She offers a free 30-minute telephone consultation by dialing (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.