Some Smiles Might Hide Untreated Cavities

Dental health problems were common in US and varied by age and race

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Flashing those pearly whites might brighten up the room, but new data suggests that many US smiles could be hiding something — problems with tooth decay.

A new study estimated that many US adults had untreated tooth decay, and nearly all adults may have some form of decay — treated or otherwise.

If cavities — also called dental caries or tooth decay — aren't treated, they can grow and cause issues like toothache, infection and tooth loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.

This new study, led by Bruce A. Dye, DDS, of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, looked at data from the 2011 to 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which included oral health assessments and dental exams to identify dental caries. The results were then combined with population data to create estimates for the country as a whole.

Dr. Dye and team estimated that 90.9 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 64 had dental caries. And while most of these cases had been treated, over a quarter of adults (26.6 percent) had untreated tooth decay.

These researchers found that rates of untreated tooth decay varied for different groups. An estimated 42 percent of black adults and 35.7 percent of Hispanic adults had untreated tooth decay. The same was true in 22 percent of white adults and 17.1 percent of Asian adults.

Dr. Dye and team found that 66.7 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 39 had all their teeth — compared to only 33.6 percent of adults between the ages of 40 and 64. Also, 18.6 percent of adults older than 65 had complete tooth loss — called edentulism.

Dr. Dye and team highlighted the existence of race- and age-based differences in dental health as something that might need to be addressed on the national level.

The Mayo Clinic recommended a number of steps for preventing dental caries, such as brushing teeth after eating or drinking with a toothpaste that contains fluoride.

"Get professional teeth cleanings and regular oral exams, which can help prevent problems or spot them early," according to the Mayo Clinic. "Your dentist can recommend a schedule that's best for you."

This study was published online May 13 as a data brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. Dr. Dye and team disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 12, 2015
Last Updated:
May 19, 2015