Pediatric tooth decay increasing, study shows
Tooth decay in young children's baby teeth is on the rise, a worrying trend that signals the preschool crowd is consuming too much sugar, according to the largest government study of the nation's dental health in more than 25 years.
Parents ''are relying on fruit snacks, juice boxes, candy and soda'' for the sustenance of preschoolers, said the study's lead author, Dr. Bruce Dye of the National Center for Health Statistics.
The study also noted a drop in the proportion of non-elderly adults who have visited a dentist in the past year -- a possible indicator of declining dental insurance.
But there was some good news: Older children have fewer cavities and adults have less periodontal disease than in the past, and more of the elderly are retaining their teeth.
''Overall, we can say that most Americans are noticing an improvement in their oral health,'' Dye said.
Experts are concerned about the prevalence of cavities in baby teeth of children ages 2 to 5. It increased to 28 percent from 1999 to 2004 and from 24 percent from 1988 to 1994, according to the report released Monday at a meeting of the American Association for Public Health Dentistry in Denver.
Tooth decay in young children had been decreasing for 40 years. Some studies have suggested the trend might have ended, but the new report contains the first statistically significant proof the trend has reversed, dental experts said.
''We still see a number of kids with multiple decayed teeth, which is a little discouraging in this day and age,'' said Dr. Hugh O'Donnell, a pediatric dentist in Allentown. ''It's a lack of care on the parents' part. Most of the stuff we're seeing in these kids is preventable.''
One reason for the increase in cavities is that parents are giving their children more processed snack foods and candy than in the past, and more bottled water or other drinks instead of fluoridated tap water, said Dr. Eugene McGuire, a pediatric dentist in Allentown.
''Because of their comfortable living style, Americans can buy on a daily basis Gatorade, soda, flavored waters and Snapple,'' he said. ''If you consume those beverages regularly, there's not enough preventive dental care in the world to reverse the damages.''
The synthetic sugars in diet beverages don't cause as much decay as table sugar or Sucrose, McGuire said, but they're still harmful to teeth. ''Instead of being shot in the head three times, you're only shot in the head twice,'' he said.
Dr. Dilshad Sumar, another pediatric dentist in Allentown, said another culprit of tooth decay in young children is taking a bottle at bedtime.
''When they are lying down, the milk or juice sits in the mouth because they don't swallow it all the time,'' she said. ''There's always bacteria present in the mouth.''
Even breast milk can cause decay, said Sumar, who recommends wiping out children's mouths with gauze before they go to bed.
''Very educated parents say 'I never give the bottle at night' but they are breast feeding,'' she said. ''They are so conscious and concerned, but the breast is the same as the bottle.''
Other experts agree that diet is at least part of the explanation for the rising cavity rates, and sugary, sticky snacks such as Fruit Roll-Ups and Gummy Bears are two of the worst culprits, Sumar said.
''It sticks to their mouth,'' she said. ''They are making vitamins out of Gummy Bears. I was so mad when I heard this. Anything that sticks to your teeth is bad. Chocolate is better than Gummy Bears because it washes off.''
Inadequate dental care also may play a role. Cavities in young children can form very quickly, and parents should begin bringing their children to the dentist at age 1, O'Donnell said.
''They have a small number of teeth, but the idea is to get parents started on oral health,'' he said. ''Too many parents wait until their kids are older and have problems'' before bringing them to a dentist.
Fluoridation of the communal water supply would go a long way in reducing cavities, McGuire said.
''I can tell in three seconds whether a kid lives in a community where there's fluoridated water or not,'' he said. ''I'm not talking about a little difference. There's a ton more of decay.''
McGuire, who has lobbied lawmakers about the need for fluoridated water in Pennsylvania, said it would cost only $1 per person per year to implement the practice.
Most school directors, parents and legislators take oral health for granted, he said. ''It's not one of their highest priorities until their kid turns 15 and has 10 cavities.''
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