Healthy teeth, healthy body: preventing disease through dentistry

A major gift to the University will enable research into the relationship between oral health and whole-of-body health to find new ways to prevent chronic disease.

The generous gift of $3.6 million, from the Abrahams family to the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Dentistry and the Charles Perkins Centre, will establish the Chair of Lifespan Oral Health.

The aim is to improve oral health and related conditions that affect the whole body through multidisciplinary research and education.

Dental disease is the most common chronic illness that has been linked to the state of our overall health and wellbeing. It has an impact on many people in Australia.

Building on the University’s research strengths, the new chair will facilitate research collaborations between laboratory, clinical and social scientists and disseminate findings to improve healthcare outcomes.

Based at Westmead Centre for Oral Health, the chair will work across the adult and children’s hospitals, private dental practices, research institutes and health facilities.

The chair will also work with dental and medical researchers investigating the relationship between dental and whole-of-body health, including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and psychological wellbeing.

Ultimately, research led by the chair will change the place of dentistry in healthcare and investigate oral health and the dental links with chronic diseases.

“This is exciting for both the Faculty of Dentistry and Charles Perkins Centre,” says Professor Chris Peck, Dean, Faculty of Dentistry. “The Chair of Lifespan Oral Health will revolutionise our understanding of the place of dentistry in overall patient care and our ability to prevent diseases.

“Through our understanding of the profound influence of oral health on chronic disease, it is evident dental interventions must be part of a disease prevention strategy.

“By understanding how to stop chronic disease at the point of inception, researchers will have the means to transform the health trajectories of entire generations of Australians.”

Professor Chris Peck Dean, Faculty of Dentistry and Professor Steve Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre explain more:

What impact does oral health have on the overall health of a person?

Professor Steve Simpson: There is a direct link – our mouth is the gateway to our body and to good health. Oral health determines the extent to which substances that enter our mouth have access to our body and its systems. The community of bacteria and fungi that live in our mouth work in two ways: either to promote health, or lead to inflammatory and other responses that impact the rest of our body.

How will the Chair of Lifespan Oral Health contribute to the future of oral health care?

Professor Chris Peck: We are already uncovering the links between oral bacteria and diseases that affect the whole body. We are researching how the mouth and teeth can be markers for systemic illness, and how chronic infections, inflammation and degeneration in the mouth help explain disease processes throughout the body. The Chair of Lifespan Oral Health will build on these activities through additional research, linking to the Charles Perkins Centre to create a whole research unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.

How will the chair use multiple disciplines to carry out research?

Professor Steve Simpson: The chair will be responsible for developing strategies to improve the health of current and future generations of Australians. This task goes beyond traditional dentistry and medicine and extends to education, nutrition, agriculture, economics, the built environment and communication technologies. This is where the Charles Perkins Centre, which was created to bring together scholars from a range of disciplines, comes into play.

Health literacy research and marketing and communications will also be integral to translating the findings into practice and delivering precise messaging to change behaviour.

How will the chair collaborate with hospitals and community and private dental practices?

Professor Chris Peck: The Faculty of Dentistry and Charles Perkins Centre are involved in health services through strong links with hospitals, community and private practices. Research will be undertaken within these sites to select appropriate patients, with significant health issues, for research activities and to disseminate research findings to clinicians, the patient and the community to change the way diseases are managed.

How will the impact of the Chair of Lifespan Oral Health extend further than Australia?

Professor Chris Peck: We have established productive links with other global universities and are proud of our collaborative international research.  The research will not be confined to Sydney or to within the shores of Australia. We will build on our existing international links through multicenter trials, collaborating with established experts and disseminating findings through our partnerships to promote the adoption of new practices on a global scale.