Dental insurers have been careful in recent years about giving dental care and dental coverage too much credit for improving patients’ overall health.

Doctors have known for decades that healthy people tend to have healthy teeth and gums. But scientists have had a hard time proving whether oral health problems were causing general health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, or whether the general health problems were causing the oral health problems.

This year, workers afraid of losing jobs– and dental benefits–have rushed to see their dentists while they still have their benefits.

“People are interested in getting to see the dentist in a very timely fashion,” says Theresa McConeghey, dental products director at Principal Financial Group Inc., Des Moines, Iowa.

In the short run, the cost of the extra preventive care and basic restorative services could cause problems, she says.

But in the long run, “it really is a positive trend,” she adds. “Consumers are becoming more aware of their dental benefits.”

The rush to dental care could pay off by helping some patients improve their overall level of health.

Scientists have been publishing papers that support the idea that paying more attention to dental health could help hold down medical benefits costs, by leading to improvements in conditions ranging from diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis.

A systematic review and analysis of earlier studies suggests that periodontal treatments probably help people with Type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels for at least 2 months, according to a team led by W. Teeuw of the University of Amsterdam.

Teeuw and colleagues reported in a paper published in February in Diabetes Care that they found 5 suitable English-language articles to analyze, and that those studies included 371 patients. All of the studies found that patients with diabetes who received extra treatments for gum disease did better than the patients in the control groups, the researchers reported.

Providing extra gum care also may help patients with rheumatoid arthritis who also have gum disease, according to a team led by M. de Noronha Pinho of the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil.

The Pinho team studied 60 patients who had gum disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or both, and 15 healthy control group members. When the researchers compared patients with rheumatoid arthritis and gum disease who received extra periodontal care with comparable patients who received no extra gum care, “large reductions were noted in the groups treated in all the parameters (periodontal, systemic and specific RA tests),” the researchers write in their paper. “This result suggests the necessity of patients with RA to receive periodontal treatment.”

The number of patients in the study was too small to prove that treating gum disease can help ease a patient’s rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, but the results suggest the necessity of making sure that patients who have both rheumatoid arthritis and gum disease get treatment for their gum disease, the researchers write.

Researchers have reported mixed results in papers on studies involving efforts to treat gum disease in pregnant women, to keep inflammation from causing the women to give birth too early.

In February, for example, a team of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology that treating gum disease with active scaling and root planning did not seem to reduce the risk of preterm birth for 378 pregnant women in a group they studied, and that active treatment of gum disease might have increased the risk of preterm birth for those women.

But 4 researchers from that same Washington University team have conducted a second study that suggests that some gum care might be more effective at reducing the risk of preterm birth than other gum care. These researchers–M. Jeffcott, S. Parry, M. Sammel and G. Macones–looked at whether gum treatments actually seemed to work.

Only 7.2% of all the women in the study without any serious gum disease gave birth before their pregnancies had lasted 35 weeks. For patients with gum disease, the preterm birth rate was about 23%.

When gum disease treatments worked, the women who were treated were significantly more likely to carry their pregnancies to term than women who also were treated but had cases of gum disease that failed to improve, the researchers found, according to a summary of an abstract the researchers presented in March in Washington, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Dental Research, Alexandria, Va.

Last summer, J.M. Goodson of the Forsyth Institute, Boston, and colleagues raised the possibility in an article in the Journal of Dental Research that a form of bacteria associated with gum disease, Selenomonas noxia, might cause obesity, or that obesity might cause gum disease by leading Selenomonas noxia to flourish, or both. The researchers found, for example, that more than 98% of obese women studied had unusually high concentrations of the Selenomonas noxia bacteria in their saliva.