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Total Force Fitness: advice you can sink your teeth into

Good dental hygiene is essential to keeping the armed forces healthy. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Kyle Gladding, from Montgomery, Alabama, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's dental department, prepares a patient for a dental x-ray. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brigitte Johnston) Good dental hygiene is essential to keeping the armed forces healthy. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Kyle Gladding, from Montgomery, Alabama, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's dental department, prepares a patient for a dental x-ray. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brigitte Johnston)

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Mouths have many uses in the military. They give service members energy by being the gateway to a healthy diet. They turn words into commands on the battlefield. They turn songs and conversations into connections with others. Despite their importance, it can be difficult to address dental problems while deployed. For example, a service member with a dental emergency on a submarine must be evacuated for care. This can risk the mission, making good dental health necessary long before deployment begins.

Dental fitness is one of eight domains in the Department of Defense’s Total Force Fitness framework. The framework builds healthy habits and improves the military’s mission capabilities. Although dental issues make up less than 20 percent of patient visits, service members’ medical readiness depends on strong teeth.

Good dental hygiene comes down to diet and home care, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Bohman of the Defense Health Agency’s Dental Capability Management office.

“Diet affects not only dental health, but military concerns like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure,” he said.

For Bohman, dental and nutritional health go hand in hand. Poor nutritional habits show up in the daily lives of many service members, he said, mainly in the use of energy drinks and smokeless tobacco.

“Smokeless tobacco is a problematic sugar source in the military,” agreed Navy Capt. Molly Jenkins, who works with Bohman in dental capability. “One can of smokeless tobacco has almost as much sugar as two cans of sugary soda.”

It’s not just classic sugars that are the problem. Simple starches from chips, fries, or crackers feed the bacteria that cause cavities. The same junk foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure also cause tooth decay.

From Jenkins’ view, there are many ways to risk dental health in the military and fewer ways to treat them conveniently with the small number of deployed dentists. As a result, she believes dental health is an important personal responsibility; it means having good eating habits to wearing a mouth guard during sports.

“Every service member must choose to do what is right when it comes to dental health and avoid doing what is wrong,” she said.

These “right choices” are made by looking first at personal habits through the Total Force Fitness framework. Poor dental habits and nutrition can affect other areas of Total Force Fitness like physical and even psychological fitness.

“Poor nutrition isn’t only bad for the teeth,” Bohman said. “It’s bad for the brain. Poor nutrition makes a person mentally foggy. Mental sharpness is a big part of the psychological area of Total Force Fitness.”

The many effects of poor dental fitness make it important to learn healthy habits early. In fact, childhood is the best place to start. February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, allowing service members and their families to focus on dental health from an early age for a healthy future.

Bohman and Jenkins say good oral health should start in the earliest years since cavities can form before children are able to brush their own teeth properly. Both doctors recommend parents should brush their children’s teeth until at least age 5 or 6 and monitor brushing as they get older. Toddlers should be taken to the dentist regularly. Babies should not be given bottles containing sugary drinks.

“Parents make all the difference in establishing lifelong healthy habits,” Bohman said. These habits result in good oral health as children grow into adults, which contributes to Total Force Fitness for the U.S. military.

Learn more about oral health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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