August 25, 2005

Tooth Decay in U.S. Falls Sharply in Kids

ATLANTA -- Tooth decay fell sharply in the United States among children and teenagers and dipped among adults during the past decade, the federal government said on Thursday, citing fluoridation of water and toothpaste as a major cause for the improvement.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 42 percent of kids aged 6 to 19 had had a cavity or filling in their permanent teeth when examined between 1999 and 2002, a 15-percent decrease from the 1988-1994 period.

Tooth decay among adults fell between 4 and 6 percent, with 20 percent fewer over the age of 60 reporting they had lost all their teeth, the Atlanta-based CDC said.

"This reduced decay in all ages is really a reflection of the widespread availability of fluoride," said Dr. William Maas, director of the CDC's division of oral health. "It works for all ages."

The United States, amid some political opposition, began adding fluoride to its water supply in the 1950s to improve dental health. Opposition grew in the 1970s amid reports of higher rates of bone disease and other illnesses in those living in fluoridated communities.

Mass said the increased use of dental sealants, thin plastic coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of back teeth to prevent pit and fissure decay, also had contributed to the progress among kids and adolescents.

These sealants are not typically used in adults because the type of decay they prevent begins early in life. There was a 64-percent increase in their use in kids and teens between the two survey periods.

But the rosier picture was clouded by data showing smoking and poverty continuing to take a toll on dental health.

Smokers were about three times more likely to have lost all their teeth than those who did not smoke and lower-income adults were about twice as likely to have untreated tooth decay than those with higher incomes.

The CDC said programs that increased access to dental care among minorities and lower-income people might be effective in reducing some of the disparities in oral health.