When a dentist tells a patient they need to clean their teeth more often, there’s every chance the patient will cheerfully agree, then go home and do nothing about it.
So Professor Joerg Eberhard decided to try a different approach. When he was practising at Hannover Medical School in his native Germany, he started telling people that if they brushed their teeth, it might reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. The reactions changed dramatically.
“They’d say, ‘Really? That’s interesting. Nobody told me.’ It gave them a reason to improve their oral health,” he says.
The link between poor oral health and cardiovascular disease is backed by research-based evidence. It is one of many examples of the connections between oral and general health – the focus of Professor Eberhard’s role as Chair of Lifespan Oral Health at the University of Sydney.
The position at the University’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Dentistry was established in 2016, funded by a $3.6 million donation from the Abrahams family through their Rosebrook Foundation. Now the Abrahams have added another $2.5 million to their gift, allowing Professor Eberhard to continue his work for a further five years beyond the originally planned seven.
“It means we’ll be able to translate the research we’re starting now into a real-world setting,” he says. “We’ll really be able to start seeing a benefit to the population.”
It seems obvious that the mouth is as much part of the body as the gut, liver, heart or brain. But traditionally, says Professor Eberhard, the health system has treated it separately, creating a division between dentistry and medicine.
“For a university to have a professorship with a focus on bringing oral health into the body is quite unique in the world,” he says. “I think the Abrahams’ gift is really visionary. It’s not about making singular, isolated studies or some prestigious and rare research project; the aim is to improve oral health for all Australians.”
For a university to have a professorship with a focus on bringing oral health into the body is quite unique in the world.
Philanthropist Dr Alex Abrahams (BDS ’82) has been a practising dentist for more than 35 years. He has worked on education campaigns to improve oral health in the Hunter Valley, where he is based, and with this donation to the University he hopes to improve the lives of people all over Australia.
Already, Professor Eberhard is leading projects that link the health of the mouth to that of the body as a whole. A study based at Nepean Clinical School, for instance, will investigate whether gum disease during pregnancy can affect the child’s health years down the track.
“We are identifying women with severe gum disease, carrying out therapy during pregnancy, then in two years, we want to look at the general health of the child,” he says. “Our hypothesis is that the mother’s poor oral health has implications for the general health of the child.”
Along with his research, Professor Eberhard is working to change attitudes and challenge the traditional separation of oral and general health, from educating the public and the scientific community, to influencing policy.
He believes the interdisciplinary nature of the Charles Perkins Centre – which brings together researchers from different fields to tackle lifestyle diseases – has been instrumental in his success.
“We have established a research community that includes researchers from across disciplines – from cardiologists to engineers,” he says. “We need collaborative research environments because medical and dental research is complex and needs to be investigated from all possible angles to ease the burden of disease.”