Health and Healthcare Systems

A World Health Day lesson: Oral health is key to overall health and wellbeing

Poor oral health is especially harmful for children, as more than 514 million children currently suffer from cavities in primary teeth.

Poor oral health is especially harmful for children, as more than 514 million children currently suffer from cavities in primary teeth. Image: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Dr. Maria Ryan
Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer, Colgate-Palmolive Company
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SDG 03: Good Health and Well-Being

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • The WHO found that global cases of oral disease have increased by 1 billion over the last 30 years.
  • Oral diseases can raise the risk of other health conditions and are linked to diabetes, pregnancy complications and even some cancers.
  • As well as increasing oral health literacy, people should incorporate actions into their daily routines for better oral health habits.

The statistics are staggering: almost 3.5 billion people worldwide are affected by oral diseases. Most people – no matter where they live or what their education or income level is – don’t know how oral health affects our overall health and wellbeing. But the important truth is that oral diseases, like periodontal disease, can increase the risk of other health conditions and are linked to diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and even some cancers.

Have you read?

Still, oral health is often neglected by people, governments and healthcare professionals, even as a recent report from the World Health Organization found that global cases of oral disease have increased by 1 billion over the last 30 years.

The silver lining is this – we have the knowledge and the tools to reverse this trend and address this global health challenge. On World Health Day, we’re shining a light on how oral health affects people’s physical health and mental wellbeing, sharing easy actions that people can take to live a healthier, happier future, and highlighting how we can get oral health on the global health agenda.

Current state of oral health

Your mouth is the gateway to your overall health and wellbeing. The most prevalent disease in the world is cavities, with approximately 2.3 billion people suffering from tooth decay which can lead to pain and suffering in people of all ages. Periodontal disease, which is driven by infection and inflammation of the gums, affects between 20-50% of the global population. As a leading cause of tooth loss in adults, periodontal disease, an often-silent condition, can compromise chewing ability, aesthetics, self-confidence – key aspects that impact our quality of life.

Oral diseases don’t just harm your mouth – heart disease, clogged arteries and strokes may be connected to the inflammation and infections caused by oral bacteria. And poor oral health is also linked to mental wellbeing – research shows cavities can lead to anxiety and embarrassment.

Oral health issues are felt acutely by children, the elderly, people living with disabilities, and communities that have been underserved and marginalized. Poor oral health is especially harmful for children, as more than 514 million children currently suffer from cavities in primary teeth. Tooth pain and trips to the dentist to treat cavities can cause children to miss up to three days of school per year – on average, over 34 million school hours in the US are lost each year because of unplanned (emergency) dental care. If left untreated, oral health can affect a child's ability to concentrate in school, hit developmental milestones or play with friends due to oral pain, hindering his or her education and social development.

Our healthier futures start with oral health

With the right knowledge and tools, people can take charge of their oral health for a brighter, healthier future.

Oral health literacy — and prevention — is key to a healthier society. Knowing what good oral health looks like, gaining a better understanding of oral diseases, learning preventive strategies and discovering opportunities to seek professional help are crucial to a healthier future.

1. Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes: Clinical science supports the importance of brushing your teeth twice a day. Currently, fluoride is the only active ingredient recognized by health authorities for cavity prevention, and it remains the standard of care. Everyone should also remember to brush their tongue, floss daily and use mouthwash as needed.

2. Brush at night: While it’s important to brush your teeth twice a day, it’s crucial to take care of your teeth right before bed. Night-time toothbrushing is especially important as the bacteria on your teeth can produce acids while you sleep that attacks tooth enamel. Removing the bacteria before you go to bed is important for protecting your teeth while you are sleeping when saliva levels are lowest, reducing a natural defence against cavities. To encourage brushing at night, parents should try to establish a consistent nighttime tooth-brushing routine with their kids.

3. Get regular dental check-ups: Everyone, even those with good oral health habits, needs to go to the dentist every six months. Dentists and dental hygienists are able to clean your teeth more thoroughly than you can at home, identify potential issues early on (especially important since many oral diseases do not have obvious signs or symptoms), and provide preventive strategies and treatment solutions.

4. Have a healthy diet low in sugars and don’t smoke: Dental caries or cavities develop when bacteria in the mouth metabolize sugars to produce acids that demineralize or destroy the hard tissues of the teeth. Smokers have twice the risk of developing gum disease. The more you smoke and the longer you have smoked incrementally increases your risk for gum disease, but with good oral hygiene and smoking cessation, people can reduce their risk.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

In addition to improving the oral health literacy of the general population, it is important to bridge the gap between the professions of dentistry and medicine. As leaders who care about the health and wellbeing of people around the world, there are actions we can take right now to get oral health on the global health agenda:

  • Change will only happen if people understand the importance of good oral health. I encourage you to visit, an interactive oral health literacy resource. The website includes free tools for primary care physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, dental hygienists – healthcare professionals broadly – as well as educators to share with the people they serve to improve their oral hygiene, encourage healthier habits and promote overall systemic health.
  • Communities need to be sure their healthcare professionals – particularly nurses – are equipped with the tools they need to help address oral health issues. Expanding training on the importance of whole body care, and initiating global and local partnerships to improve diversity in the healthcare workforce are important steps to getting oral health on the global health agenda.
  • Informing health policy guidelines and addressing the socio-economic impacts of poor oral health will benefit everybody – communities, governments and healthcare systems.
  • Technology continues to play an important role in healthcare. We need to continue investing in next-generation technology and research to address the significant impacts of poor oral health to ensure a healthier future for all.

External momentum is building to bridge the gap between dentistry and medicine, creating urgency and opportunity. By taking meaningful actions, we can build a future where oral care is an integral part of everyone’s everyday health routines. Visit to get the facts and learn more.

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