MONDAY, April 30, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Most Americans are taking better care of their teeth, resulting in improved dental health, but tooth decay in baby teeth among children is increasing, according to a new report.
In fact, decay in baby teeth among 2- to 5-year-olds has increased from 24 percent to 28 percent from 1988 to 2004, the federal report found.
In addition, a racial and ethnic divide exists when it comes to dental health.
"This report shows that while we are continuing to make strides in prevention of tooth decay, this disease clearly remains a problem for some racial and ethnic groups, many of whom have more treated and untreated tooth decay compared with other groups," Dr. Bruce A. Dye, the report's lead author, said in a prepared statement.
Dye was to present the findings Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Health Dentistry in Denver. The report, titled Trends in Oral Health Status -- United States, 1988-1994 and 1999-2004, is based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics
The report does highlight significant improvement in several areas. Tooth decay in permanent teeth has decreased for children, teens, and adults. And, 38 percent of children and teens aged 12 to 19 have had dental sealants, a plastic coating that protects against decay.
Yet, the report notes gaps in dental care based on race and ethnicity. For example, 31 percent of Mexican-American children ages 6 to 11 had decay in their permanent teeth, compared with 19 percent of non-Hispanic white children.
There were also income-related disparities in care. For families with incomes below the federal poverty line, 12 percent of children ages 6 to 11 had untreated tooth decay, compared with 4 percent of children from families above the poverty line.
"Although preventive measures, such as dental sealants, have been widely available for years, we need to focus our efforts on reaching children living in poverty who stand to benefit the most from them," Dr. William R. Maas, a dentist and director of the CDC's Division of Oral Health, said in a prepared statement. "This report challenges us to increase our efforts to reach those most in need with effective preventive measures, and to provide guidance and health education to others, for instance, smokers whose oral health can greatly benefit from quitting."
Dr. Mary Hayes, a pediatric dentistry spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, called the increase in childhood cavities "discouraging." She noted that children are snacking more, particularly sweet snacks, which increase the risk for tooth decay.
Also, young children can't effectively brush their teeth, Hayes said. "I see parents who are still surprised that if their child is two, three or four, that they have to brush their child's teeth in order to do a proper job," she said. "A young child does not have the fine motor skills to clean their teeth. They can put the toothbrush into their mouth, but they don't clean off the plaque."
And, even though baby teeth are replaced by permanent teeth, it is important to keep them clean and cavity-free, Hayes said. "The baby teeth are the pattern for the permanent teeth," she said. "Studies have shown that if you have a lot of decayed baby teeth, and you leave it that way, that's the kind of mouth for permanent teeth you are going to have. The baby teeth set up the bite you are going to have with the permanent teeth."
Hayes said parents and politicians need to put more emphasis on dental health. "We need to get policymakers not to diminish the value of dentistry relative to health," she said. "Medical care, especially for the disadvantaged, does not mean no teeth. The teeth are part of the body, we all go together -- the teeth come with the body."
Among other findings in the report:
- Tooth decay in permanent teeth of children ages 6 to 11 decreased from about 25 percent to 21 percent, and among teens it decreased from 68 percent to 59 percent.
- The use of dental sealants increased from 22 percent to 30 percent among children and from 18 percent to 38 percent among teens.
- Moderate and severe gum disease declined from 10 percent to 5 percent among adults 20 to 64 years old, and from 27 percent to 17 percent among seniors.
- For seniors, complete tooth loss decreased from 34 percent to 27 percent.
- Sixty percent of adults reported seeing a dentist in the past year (1999-2004), compared with 66 percent during the previous survey (1988-94).
To learn more about children's dental health, visit the U.S. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.