Gum disease, with implications for overall health, affects nearly half of Americans

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Nearly half of American adults have some level of periodontal disease, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings could provide a teachable moment for health care journalists.

Mary OttoMary Otto, AHCJ’s topic leader on oral health is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover oral health care.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to mary@healthjournalism.org.

The malady’s common name, gum disease, sounds pretty innocuous.  But a definition offered by the CDC provides a glimpse at its deeper implications for oral and overall health.

“Periodontal disease is a disease of the gums and bone that surround and support the teeth. It can range from a mild inflammation of the soft tissues surrounding the teeth (gingivitis) to irreversible chronic destruction of both the soft and hard (bone) tissues supporting the teeth (periodontitis). The more severe form can lead to tooth loss.”

The study, published online Aug 30 by the Journal of Dental Research, found that about 47 percent of U.S. adults ages 30 and older had periodontitis. In adults ages 65 years and older, an estimated 70 percent have periodontitis.

The study was conducted in a sample of 3,743 adults who received an examination as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during 2009 and 2010.

“This study shows that the prevalence of periodontal disease is high – nearly half of all American adults have periodontitis and the percentage increases to nearly three-fourths of older adults,” said the report’s lead author,  Paul Eke, a CDC epidemiologist.

The new estimate is roughly double the old one, thanks to the fact that the CDC  employed full-mouth periodontal examinations as part of the most recent NHANES.  Previous studies examined fewer sites within the mouths of the participants.

“We were looking at half the mouth,” Eke said. “Just looking at half the mouth you are not likely to get the whole story.”

The new finding has meaning for systemic health as well.

The fact that periodontal disease is a complication of diabetes has been borne out by many studies. Researchers are still delving into its relationship with other health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Eke said.

“There are ongoing studies to establish a cause and effect relationship between periodontitis and other conditions.”

The findings offer health journalists an opportunity to remind readers of the  warning signs for periodontal disease.

The CDC offers the following: bad breath that is difficult to treat, red and bleeding gums, painful chewing, loose and sensitive teeth, and receding gums.

Safeguards include routine brushing and flossing, as well as an annual dental visit.

The disease, in its early stages, can be controlled and treated with good oral hygiene and professional cleaning, which removes plaque that has hardened into tartar or calculus. More advanced cases often require more specialized treatment. Risk factors include diabetes, stress, crooked or crowded teeth, medications that cause dry mouth, having immune-deficiencies, such as AIDS,  hormonal changes such as those experienced during pregnancy, and tobacco use.

For more from the CDC see http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth.

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