Eyes, teeth windows to overall health
Some health problems can be discovered through an eye exam.

Are you keeping an eye on your eyes and teeth? Whether you realize it or not, both are important to your overall health.

Let’s start with eyes. A comprehensive vision exam can tell you more than whether you need new glasses; it can reveal other conditions that might be affecting your health. Here are a few examples:

It’s normal for us, as we age, to develop cataracts that obscure vision. But cloudy eyes in younger people may indicate diabetes, a tumor or other serious conditions. Blurred vision is another indicator of diabetes, and sudden blurred vision — even if it returns to normal quickly — should be evaluated promptly as it may be a precursor to 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 a stroke. Yellow eyes may 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 also could be a Vitamin A deficiency. Your mom was right: Carrots are good for your eyes!

Macular degeneration is a serious concern as we age because it robs us of the ability to read, watch TV or do hobbies. Your ophthalmologist or optometrist will look for early signs of macular degeneration. There are supplements, like lutein, that may help, and some forms of macular degeneration can be treated with lasers.

Good dental health is also important to overall health. Our mouths teem with all sorts of bacteria that are usually harmless, but if you don’t brush and floss regularly, they can grow to cause gum disease and tooth decay. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests that serious gum disease is associated with other diseases such as endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s inner lining, the result of bacteria in your bloodstream.

Saliva does a good job of washing away contaminants, but some medications — notably decongestants — cause dry mouth. As our mouths are the pathways to our respiratory and digestive systems, it pays to keep our mouths clean and healthy.

And it’s easy! Brush, floss, limit sugars and go at least once a year to a dentist for an exam and thorough cleaning. The longer you wait between appointments, the more can go wrong. If you had traumatic experiences with dentists in the past, look for one who practices painless dentistry, sometimes called sedation dentistry because it uses mild forms of sedation to calm and relax you before any procedure is performed.

Why do many people neglect vision and oral health? Unfortunately, unless you have good employer-based insurance coverage, eye and dental exams can be costly. Medicare doesn’t cover even 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 recipients don’t have any dental insurance, so they are on the hook for the full cost of treatment.

Nor does Medicare cover eye exams, glasses, contact lenses or treatment for visual issues.

Some plans offered under the Affordable Care Act and Medicare Advantage Plans provide limited coverage, but supplemental and individual vision and dental plans can cost a family hundreds of dollars a month.

What if you can’t afford a trip to the dentist or eye doctor? You can obtain financing through companies that specialize in medical care. Ask your doctors if you can spread your payments over a period of months. You can also explore whether 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 Democrat or Republican — favor adding dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare. U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, whose 2d District in Illinois stretches from Hyde Park south to Kankakee County, has introduced a bill with Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada that would expand Medicare Part B to cover most dental procedures, including dentures. And the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health just sent a letter to Congress advocating expansion of Medicare to include dental coverage.

You can keep yourself healthier — and maybe reduce your long-term medical costs — by caring for your eyes and teeth with regular exams. Shop around, ask questions, obtain estimates in advance, and do your best to care for these vital systems.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.