Generational differences, or at least debates about them, crop up everywhere, and dentistry is no exception. It might seem like millennials should have better teeth than previous generations due to all the health information at their fingertips, but the reality may be the opposite—and dental clinics everywhere should pay attention.
What about advancements in dentistry?
At first, it may seem like millennials are in place to have the best teeth of any generation. After all, dentistry has made great strides in the past few decades, with advances in corrective and cosmetic dentistry giving more options in how to get the smile you want. Those changes, though, have led to a distinct shift in people’s attitudes about dental care. Millennials often take oral health for granted, assuming they can use a teeth whitening filter on Instagram and get their teeth straightened (or restraightened) later. The prevailing attitude seems to be “I don’t have to take care of that now,” meaning they’ll go to the dentist only when they think they “have” to, rather than making it an expected part of their routines.
Experts have dubbed this “the Invisalign effect,” where millennials see corrective dental care as something that can continue into adulthood rather than only being for children in junior high or young adults in high school. That could be positive, in that such an attitude acknowledges the importance of continuing to prioritize dental care. But there’s also the concerning side: If you can get Invisalign later, it’s not as much of a priority to take care of your teeth now. So, cosmetic dentistry is on the rise, but that often means that the emphasis on ordinary but critical dental care declines.
Untraditional lives, untraditional priorities
Another main reason that millennials may have worse teeth than their parents is that many millennials have untraditional lives—and untraditional priorities. Where oral hygiene is concerned, that often means going to the dentist less, not regularly flossing, and other similar lack of emphases on taking good care of teeth.
Plenty of studies demonstrate that an untraditional lifestyle, especially working from home, makes people less likely to have a good daily dental hygiene routine while also making them more likely to snack throughout the day. One study examining America’s failing dental health through the pandemic showed that “millennials more frequently reported experiencing dental disruptions, with 43% of those surveyed indicating that working from home or attending virtual classes from home led to disruptions to their usual dental hygiene habits” during the lockdown. Compounding the problem, 31% reported snacking more often during the pandemic.
The effect of diet on teeth
Fact: Millennials often have a much worse diet than previous generations, regularly indulging in fast food and sweets more than other age groups. Medical Daily reports that the best way to describe the average millennial diet is “poor.” Poor eating habits spiral into other bad habits. For example, millennials rarely hit the daily recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake, and then they also eat replacements with fake sugars and other problematically synthetic foods.
The American Dental Association (ADA) explains that there is a bidirectional relationship between oral health and diet: “Diet and nutrition affect the health of the tissues in the mouth, and the health of the mouth affects nutrients consumed.” More sugar increases cavity risk; more acidic food and beverages increase the risk of wear on teeth. So, a poor diet is one of the main reasons why millennials may have worse teeth than their parents.
Understanding genetics and oral health
In looking at generational effects, how big a role do genes play in oral health? According to the ADA, “no gene to date has been identified that has as large an impact on periodontal disease as do environmental influences, such as smoking or diabetes.” While there are definitely genetic factors to how healthy teeth are, ultimately, individuals can make the decision to prioritize their oral health. That will make more of a difference than any genetics.
The ADA advocates for embracing generational diversity when it comes to dental care and oral hygiene practices. According to their research, “millennials tend to be confident, ambitious and achievement-oriented…creative, optimistic, collaborative and entrepreneurial.” While many have criticized these character traits as reasons why millennials might refuse to seek help or ignore the advice of medical authorities, dentists can embrace these millennial mindsets and use them to their advantage. Reframing dental health as an achievement rather than something mundane could draw greater participation.
Avoiding routine dental visits
It’s not just millennials who need to prioritize oral health care better, but that generation seems to be regularly dodging the dentist, or at least underemphasizing dental care in comparison to other pursuits. As Business Insider reports, “close to half of Americans (45%) would rather spend money on TV services, for example, cable or streaming services, than on a dental procedure–this jumps to more than half among millennials (aged 18-34) (56%).” That increase is key.
Millennials not only have going to the dentist low on their priority list; they also actively avoid it. Excuses range from not having time to not having money to being apprehensive about a dentist or dental hygienist working in the mouth. Yet whatever the reason, millennials go to the dentist less. Without the steady habit of regular dental checkups that their parents and grandparents were more diligent about, millennials have much worse teeth than previous generations.
Neglecting oral health: Don’t be on trend
If you’re a millennial, don’t be on trend when it comes to neglecting oral health. Taking basic preventive measures by establishing a real dental hygiene routine can not only brighten your smile but can also prevent serious gum disease and tooth decay.