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Senior Health: The Secret to Keeping Your Immune System Strong as You Age

Senior Health:  The Secret to Keeping Your Immune System Strong as You Age

There is a reason we felt indestructible as teenagers—our immune system was strong and resilient.  But after years of assaults, we have to think more carefully about ways to protect our immune system and stay healthy.  As we get older, we become more and more susceptible to the barrage of challenges to our health—viruses, bacteria, environmental pollution, stress.  In our later years, there is a reduction in T cells, the cells that fight aging, infection, and diseases such as flues and cancer.  In particular, the reduction in T cells results in a lowered immune response to infection.
According to Harvard Health Publications, there is not a conclusive link between lifestyle choices and immune function, but there are enough indications—and wide consensus–about some of the most basic life choices to support health.  Adapting these essential healthy habits are widely agreed to be of help in supporting the immune system, and you can readily find information online as to the best guidelines for your age and condition.

Keys to a Healthy Lifestyle and Strong Immune System

So let’s start with the basics, all of which you’ve heard before:

  • Exercise regularly to improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure
  • Avoid smoking and excess alcohol use
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Keep your weight at a healthy level for your age and gender
  • Get adequate rest and include quiet time often

What about supplements?  Can they help the immune system?  In recent years, there has been more information about vitamins and herbs in relation to maintaining good health, but for the general immune system, the data is unclear.  Studies on supplements are often not well designed, or are focused on a specific disease.  The effect on the immune system itself has not been determined.  The individual rate of absorption of the nutrients in supplements can also complicate a clear understanding of the effects of vitamins and herbs, so advocates of herbal products and other supplements generally have to rely on anecdotal information about their efficacy for immune support.  In some cases that means pointing to the fact that a particular herb or remedy has been used for many years.  This may be true, but of course is not scientific validation.

So what is the one area, perhaps most often overlooked by the general public?  What is the secret to keeping your immune system strong as you age?

Oral Health: The Mouth-Body Connection

Health practitioners agree that the connection between oral health and overall immune strength is undeniable.  According to WebMD, “The past five to ten years have seen a ballooning interest in possible links between mouth health and body health.”

It’s not just your teeth that are at risk with poor oral health.  Serious complications from diabetes to heart disease can be linked to oral health.  One study reviewed by WebMD reported that people with serious gum disease were 40% more likely to have some chronic health condition.  For instance, periodontitis (inflammation around teeth and gums) affects the body’s processing of blood sugar and impairs the utilization of insulin by the body.  Further, WebMD reports in its article “The Mouth-Body Connection,” that periodontitis “has a direct role in raising the risk for heart disease,” and goes on to say that it can even increase the risk of heart attacks.  Osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and some lung conditions can all find root causes in poor oral health.

All of these points to the necessity to address dental issues before they can undermine the immune system and lead to a variety of diseases.  According to Pamela McClain, DDS, President of the American Academy of Periodontology, “your body can affect your mouth, and likewise your mouth can affect your body.”  She stresses the dangers of delaying dental problems, and advises people to get treated promptly, before dental problems “start to affect our overall health.”  Dr. Nathan Laughry, who administers three dental clinics, reminds his patients that “whatever your dental needs are today, they are less than what your dental needs will be likely to be in the future, if untreated.”

It is remarkable that the link between delaying dental work and immune health is so low on the public’s radar.  And yet a recent CDC report shows the prevalence of periodontitis in the US: Almost 50% of adults aged 30 years and older have some form of periodontal disease, and over 70% of adults aged 65 or older have periodontal disease.  Many people go months, and even years, without attending to dental problems, which almost always continue to deteriorate over time.  Why do people wait with so much at risk?

Two reasons come to mind.  The first is the general avoidance of dental visits because of the concern for pain.  Despite the fact that dental work has never been more pain-free and techniques to address dental problems are more advanced every year, people live with the discomfort of dental problems rather than risk discomfort in the dentist chair.  But a much deeper problem is the cost of dental care.  According to a recent poll by the research firm ORC International, over a third of people needing dental work will delay a dental visit due to financial constraints.

Delaying Dental Care Because of the Cost

“I simply can’t afford to have the dental work my dentist says I need,” says Kyle F., a construction supervisor from Salt Lake City.  “Even with a reasonable income as a site supervisor, the idea of spending over $8000 for the dental work I need seems impossible.  There is never a good time to spend that kind of money, so I’ve just been putting it off as long as I can.”  Mary L., a school teacher in New Mexico needed about $10,000 worth of dental work.  “I finally had to do something about it and there was no way to pay what my dentist charges.  So I traveled to Costa Rica and had the work done for less than $2000.”  An engineer in North Carolina had twelve crowns needing replacement at a proposed cost of over $22,000.  “When I priced the same exact work in Mexico, the cost was less than $3000,” he says.

These people have discovered what thousands of others needing dental care found: there is an alternative to expensive dental services in the US.  Safe, affordable dental care is accessible in Mexico and in other locations outside of the US.  “We estimate that in 2012 [the most recent figures], 400,000 Americans crossed international borders for dental care.  We project a growth rate of approximately 20 percent,” says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders.  Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, says, “It’s important to remember that there are good dentists everywhere.”

The continued upward spiral of dental costs, coupled with the aging population, has led to the relatively new field of dental tourism.  And Mexico has been the primary destination for US citizens because of the proximity, cost, and ease of travel.  The satisfaction with dental services in Mexico is supported by a study sponsored by Families USA, a health advocacy group, which reported that 90% of patients getting dental work in Mexico rated their experience either “good” or “excellent”.  This actually exceeded satisfaction ratings in the US in the same study.

The demand for quality dental care at an affordable cost has resulted in the need for trusted referral agencies to direct people to clinics in Mexico that have a history of high standards of service, a record of satisfied clients, and a location that is both safe and easily accessible.  Terri Heeter, president of Beyond Borders says that’s why her company chose select clinics in Palomas Mexico.  Palomas (Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua Mexico) is a quiet town of less than 5000 residents just south of Columbus NM.  The town is about a four hour drive from Albuquerque NM (270 miles) and about a five hour drive from Santa Fe NM (330 miles).  Heeter’s company operates a dental concierge service that delivers their clients right to the dental clinic’s door in Palomas.  “This takes all the worry out of getting dental work across the border,” she says.

Heeter says her clients save up to 80% on dental services, and the company takes time to carefully evaluate the clinics they use.  “We have a four step evaluation process, including site visits to the clinic and follow-up with our clients, to assure the quality of the dental work being done,” continues Heeter.  “People don’t need to put off needed dental care because of the cost.”  With over $100 billion spent on dental care in the latest figures from the Health Policy Institute, that is good news.

Oral Health: A Critical Element in Immune Health

Since there is an alternative to putting off dental care because of cost, addressing oral health should be an important part of keeping your immune system strong.  As we’ve learned, ignoring dental well-being can have significant consequences on a healthy immune system, and can be a risk factor for a variety of diseases.  Follow the guidelines we all are familiar with—exercise, good diet, adequate rest—but help keep your immune system ramped up with good home dental care practices and professional dental care as well.  With cross-border dental services so affordable today, there is finally a way to do that without spending thousands of dollars to keep your mouth healthy, and your immune system resilient.

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