More Than Half of US Teenagers Have Tooth Decay

Megan Brooks

March 05, 2015

Tooth decay remains a problem in US children, especially teenagers, according to a new data brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

"Although tooth decay has been declining since the 1960s when 75% of children by the age of 11 had cavities in their permanent adult teeth...tooth decay is still a common disease in children and adolescents with significant consequences," Bruce A. Dye, DDS, MPH, dental epidemiology officer with the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, said during a media briefing.

"Children with serious dental problems can have difficulty eating and sleeping, paying attention and concentrating in school," he explained.

According to new data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), in 2011 to 2012, 23% of children aged two to five years had one or more cavities in baby teeth. Among children aged six to 11 years, 21% had one or more cavities in adult teeth. And among teenagers aged 12 to 19 years, 58% had one or more cavities in adult teeth.

"Brushing habits often go downhill in adolescence and diets get worse as teens become more independent and this contributes to teenagers having more opportunities for tooth decay to occur," Dr Dye said.

The prevalence of untreated dental caries varies by age. According to the data, 10% of children aged two to five years had untreated tooth decay in baby teeth; 6% of children aged six to 11 years had untreated tooth decay in adult teeth, as did 15% of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years.

Oral health disparities between race/ethnic groups were evident. "Across most age groups, Asian American children have similar rates of tooth decay as white children. Hispanic children were more likely to have one or more cavities than white children and Asian American children," he said.

Disparities were also evident in use of dental sealants applied to the tooth chewing surfaces to help prevent cavities. "Black and Asian American children were less likely to have dental sealants than their white peers and Black teenagers were less likely to have dental sealants than any other group," Dr Dye said.

He emphasized that the NHANES 2011-2012 data provide a "2-year snapshot. It's too early to say that dental health is improving. What we are reporting is the first 2 years of a multiyear data collection effort and we don't have enough data yet to determine if there is a real change or not. We need more data to improve the power of any trend analyses."

Dental Caries and Sealant Prevalence in Children and Adolescents in the United States, 2011-2012. NCHS Data Brief No. 191. Published online March 5, 2015. Full text

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