Percentage of adult Americans with cavities remains high, study notes

Mary Otto

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.

Photo by ktpupp via Flickr.

Although tooth decay and tooth loss have been declining in recent decades, more than nine of 10 working-age Americans have cavities in permanent teeth, a new federal report shows.

“Among adults aged 20-64, 91 percent had caries and 27 percent had untreated tooth decay,” conclude the authors of a data brief from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The data were drawn from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The survey, really an ongoing series of surveys, serves as a major tool for assessing the status of the nation’s oral health. NHANES’ size and depth make it unique. The study combines face-to-face interviews and physical examinations of a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 people each year. The work is overseen by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The newest data show enduring racial disparities in disease and treatment patterns. While white American adults have more tooth decay than minorities, they are also more likely to receive treatment, the brief finds.

A full 94 percent of non-Hispanic white adults of working age had decayed teeth, compared with 91 percent of black and 86 percent of Hispanic adults aged 20 to 64, according to the federal data.

Yet less than a quarter of whites had untreated tooth decay, compared with 42 percent of black adults and 36 percent of Hispanic adults. Seventeen percent of Asian American adults had untreated decay, according to the brief.

Tooth decay and loss becomes more prevalent as Americans age, the brief also found.

“In 2011-2012, nearly all U.S. adults aged 65 and over (96 percent) with any permanent teeth had dental caries,” the authors noted.

Nearly 19 percent of Americans in that age group were edentulous, meaning they had lost all their teeth. Complete tooth loss among older adults varied across the races.  Only 15 percent of older Hispanic and 17 percent of older white Americans were edentulous, compared with 29 percent of older black Americans.

The new findings provide an update from data included in the 1999-2004 NHANES study. The previous report found that 92 percent of working age adults had cavities in permanent teeth and 26 percent had untreated decay. Among older people, the decay rate was 93 percent. Nearly one quarter of Americans aged 60 years old or older had lost all their teeth.

While the new data brief explores the oral health of adults, a brief released earlier this spring took a fresh look at NHANES findings for children.

Need the latest federal data on the oral health status of Americans? The NHANES can be a very useful resource.

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