(CNN) – The percentage of young people with dental cavities in the United States dropped from 50% in 2012 to just over 43% in 2016, according to a new study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the overall trend is a positive one, young members of minority communities continue to have the highest number of cavities as well as the highest number of untreated cavities, the CDC found in its latest study of dental decay. The findings were based on national data gathered from young people living in the United States aged between 2 and 19, compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The highest prevalence of total and untreated cavities was found among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black youth, according to the study, released Friday. Hispanic youths had the most cavities (52%) compared with black (44.3%), Asian (42.6%) and white (39%) youths. Black youths had the most untreated cavities (17.1%) compared with Hispanic (13.5%), white (11.7%) and Asian (10.5%) youths.
The American Dental Association has tracked the historical trend of racial disparity in oral health care — and its correlation to income levels — over several decades. It has also found that the prevalence has gone down but is still highest in Hispanic and black youth.
Consequences of cavities
The implications of poor oral health are wide-ranging, experts say. Dental cavities are the most common chronic disease among youth ages 6 to 19. If untreated, they can cause pain and infection.
In very rare cases, tooth decay has the potential to be deadly. Study author Dr. Eleanor Fleming cited the case of 12-year-old Maryland boy Deamonte Driver, who died in 2007 due to a severe brain infection caused by dental decay.
If baby teeth have untreated decay, it can have negative implications on the adult teeth. It can also prevent permanent teeth from growing in properly, according to Fleming, a dentist and part of the National Center for Health Statistics’ Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.
Cavities can lead students to miss school, to not be able to chew properly and to not be able to speak and communicate effectively due to pain, she said.
For many young people, “the most important aspect of how caries (cavities) impacts you is that it impacts your academic performance,” said Dr. Roseann Mulligan, associate dean and professor at the University of Southern California’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry.
If you are in constant discomfort, your ability to focus and study suffers, said Mulligan, who was not involved in the new report.
Why are minorities most at risk?
Mulligan cited several reasons why Hispanic and black youth might have the highest prevalence of total and untreated cavities, including socioeconomic status, education level and access to health care.
“The prevalence of total dental [cavities] decreased as family income levels increased, from 51.8% for youth from families living below the federal poverty level to 34.2% for youth from families with income levels greater than 300% of the federal poverty level,” according to the CDC study.
“The prevalence of untreated dental [cavities] decreased from 18.6% for youth from families living below the federal poverty level to 7.0% for youth from families with incomes greater than 300% of the federal poverty level,” the study found.
In order to address this issue, medical professionals are going into communities to offer access to oral health care, educate families and children about the importance of oral health, and help families find dental clinics that are accessible to them.
This means finding clinics that will accept these families, whether they have insurance or not, and that are geographically close enough for them to visit, Mulligan said.
‘We have to think more broadly’
Helping link families to oral health care is the most important step, she said, including putting resources out there so people know they exist. Even if families are eligible for public insurance, they may not know how to get it or understand what dentist or clinic their insurance will allow. Insurance can be very hard to navigate, Mulligan said.
Social issues often keep families from focusing on oral health, be they physical, financial or something else.
“If we don’t have a multipronged effort, then I don’t think we are ever going to crack this problem. We have to think more broadly,” in a holistic way, Mulligan said.
Families have a lot of competing priorities — getting food on the table, paying bills, dealing with illness — and this can cause oral health care to be put on the back burner. This is why it is important to help families address whatever issues may be keeping them from seeking oral health care, Mulligan said.
Steps to good dental health
According to the CDC, there are several simple steps parents can take to help ensure good oral health for children:
Find a dentist if your child needs one.
Protect your child’s teeth by using fluoride (Children younger than 2 should not use fluoride toothpaste unless recommended by doctor or dentist).
As soon as your child’s first tooth appears, talk to a medical professional about fluoride varnish.
If your drinking water is not fluoridated, ask a medical professional whether your child needs oral fluoride supplements.
Talk to your child’s dentist about dental sealants.
Have your child visit a dentist for a first checkup by age 1.