Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

High obesity rates, lack of dental care access could be unhealthy combination for South LA

Thousands Attend Free Temporary Health Clinic In Los Angeles

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A patient receives dental care at the 2011 Care Harbor clinic in South Los Angeles. At the 2012 event, Care Harbor's CEO said dental care was by far the biggest need there.

Two things about South Los Angeles make the findings of a recent study appearing in General Dentistry particularly troubling:

1. The latest numbers from the county's Department of Public Health show that the southside has some of the highest obesity rates in L.A. County. While the adult obesity rate for the county overall is 24 percent, that goes up to about 33 percent in South L.A.

2. In September, the free Care Harbor clinic that took place in South L.A. served nearly 5,000 uninsured patients over four days. Don Manelli, Care Harbor's CEO, said dental care was by far the biggest need among those who received treatment.

And now the General Dentistry study: Researchers have linked obesity to an increased risk of gum disease. They wrote that the bodies of obese people "relentlessly" produce a type of protein known as cytokines, which have inflammatory properties. If those proteins come into contact with or manage to reduce blood flow to the gum tissues, that may promote the development of gum disease.

What researchers don't know is the nature of the association: whether obesity causes gum disease or vice versa, or whether one condition is a risk factor for the other remains unclear. What the study's authors did say is preventive dental care is crucial in order to keep tabs on gum health.

That's the challenge for South L.A.: If obesity does indeed, say, cause gum disease, dental care is hardly a realistic recourse for many people. At September's Care Harbor clinic, patients in need began lining up three days before the clinic even opened. One patient, Yasheema Adjawa, said that she needed about $4,000 worth of dental work – in part because she hadn't been to the dentist in about 30 years.

"Dental care is very, very, very expensive for me because I'm on a fixed income," Adjawa said at the time.

The American Academy of Periodontology says nearly half of Americans have gum disease; besides twice-yearly dental cleanings, experts say the best way to prevent the condition is twice-daily brushing and flossing.

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