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The Bad News About the State of Our Oral Health

Our mouths are essential to our everyday lives, helping us to express emotion, communicate, eat, and even swallow. An unhealthy mouth can make any of these tasks painful and difficult, but it can also affect you on many different levels. Your mouth is one of your body’s first lines of defense against illness, and an unhealthy mouth can actually cause health problems in the rest of your body—sometimes with dire consequences. The good news is that cavities and gum disease are easily preventable, but despite this, they are incredibly common among Americans. Here are some eye-opening statistics about oral health and the ways it can affect you.   

Oral Health in Adults

In America, a staggering 91% of people over the age of 20 have had cavities at some point. That means almost every adult you know has already had tooth decay. The CDC has also reported that more than 27% of adults have untreated tooth decay—that’s 1 out of every 4 people. This high level of poor oral health is mostly due to poor diet and poor oral hygiene. It’s important to note, however, that America still has an economic disparity in its oral health; since lower-income families often find it hard to scrape together money for oral care, they have more untreated cavities than families well above the poverty line. One study found that 43.88% of adults living below the federal poverty line had untreated cavities compared to 17.97% of adults with an income greater than 200% of the poverty line. 

Poor oral hygiene, however, remains the main cause of tooth decay and gum disease. Many Americans simply don’t floss, though the exact numbers are hard to pin down due to people’s reluctance to admit that they don’t. One study by the ADA found that only 16% of people say they floss at least once a day, while 44% of people admitted to telling their dentist that they floss more than they actually do. Another study of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 32.4% of adults over the age of 30 don’t floss at all. It’s not too surprising, then, that nearly half of people aged 30 and up have gum disease—and it’s gum disease, not cavities, that’s the leading cause of tooth loss in America. 

Oral Health in Kids

It’s not just adults who suffer from bad oral health; even young children are suffering from it. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 42% of children between the ages of 2 and 11 have already had cavities in their baby teeth, and 23% of children in the same age range have untreated cavities. Additionally, 59% of children between the ages of 12 and 19 have had at least one cavity in their permanent teeth. 

Why Oral Health Matters

Poor oral health has a range of short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, untreated cavities can be extremely painful, making it hard to concentrate at work or school and potentially affecting your performance over time. Untreated cavities or gum disease can result not only in a lot of pain for you, but will require more expensive treatments than simple prevention or early treatment and may even cause you to lose a tooth. Usually, if you feel pain in your teeth or gums, the problem is already severe. 

Over time, untreated cavities or gum disease can raise a number of serious health concerns. Severe gum disease, called periodontitis, increases your chances of stroke, heart disease, and heart attack. Periodontitis also makes it more likely that pregnant women will have preterm or low birth weight babies, which can result in a host of health concerns for the baby immediately after birth and throughout their lives. Bacteria from your mouth may even cause or worsen pneumonia if you breathe it in, and in some cases, bacteria can get into your bloodstream and cause an infection in the inner lining of your heart’s chambers and valves. If it’s not found early enough, oral cancer, which many dentists check for during routine preventative cleanings, can be life-threatening. 

The Good News

There’s good news about your oral health: Cavities and gum disease are both easily preventable. In the past few decades, the introduction of water fluoridation and fluoride toothpaste has definitely benefited oral health in America. In fact, the CDC states that the baby boomers are the first generation where most people will have their natural teeth for their entire lifetime, though improvements in dental practices probably play a role as well. Despite this improvement, fluoride in our water and toothpaste isn’t enough on its own to prevent oral health problems, such as tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancers. The statistics speak for themselves: Americans need to take a more active role in protecting their oral health. 

Prevention is actually very easy; it simply involves great oral hygiene and the formation of good habits. Your oral hygiene routine should involve not only brushing your teeth at least twice a day but flossing and using mouthwash at least once a day, too. This only adds a few minutes to your morning and bedtime routines, but it gives back so much by keeping you healthy. You should also visit your dentist at least twice a year; this will help prevent future issues and catch any issues that do surface early. 

You should also try to kick bad habits, like smoking, which makes you more susceptible to gum disease and is one of the main causes of oral cancer. Try to limit how often you snack during the day and increase the number of fruits and vegetables you eat; a good diet is just as important for your teeth as it is for the rest of your body! 

We live in a busy world, which makes it easy to let small things, like flossing or brushing your teeth, slip through the cracks when you’re rushing out the door or are desperate to fall into bed, but doing so can have a lot of unexpected consequences for your oral and overall health. Thankfully, maintaining your oral health is a simple matter of prevention. There are no complicated rulebooks or lengthy step-by-step processes involved; just a few minutes at the beginning and end of your day will go a long way toward keeping you healthy—and your dental bills minimal—for years to come.

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