New report provides snapshot of gum disease prevalence

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.

Dental hygenist

Image by The National Guard via flickr.

Periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, is a widespread oral health problem. Research suggests that nearly half of all Americans 30 years old or older are affected by the condition, which can lead to sore, bleeding gums, chewing problems and even tooth loss if allowed to progress.

Poor oral hygiene habits and a lack of professional care can set the stage for the infection, allowing a sticky bacterial plaque to build up and harden on the teeth. Smoking is also considered a leading risk factor for gum disease.

Scientists continue to work to understand the complex relationships between gum disease and other health conditions. Studies have established that people with diabetes face elevated risk for periodontal disease. Further work is aimed at finding out more about the connections between the two diseases. Research into potential links between periodontal disease and conditions such as heart disease and stroke are ongoing.

Federal health officials have set a goal of reducing the incidence of periodontal disease nationwide.

But most public health intervention programs are launched on a state and community levels. And many states and communities have been hampered in their efforts to tackle the problem of gum disease because they have lacked reliable local estimates on its prevalence.

A new study, published in the Journal for Dental Research, could change that.

The paper offers a first-ever estimation of periodontal disease prevalence on state, county, congressional district and even census tract levels across the country.

Researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention used a small area estimation (SAE) model to come up with their fine-grained analysis of the problem.

The model, which gathers and crunches public data from sources such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the American Community Survey, has already been used in providing local-level estimates for diseases such as diabetes and health risks such as smoking.

The researchers mapped the highest estimated prevalence of gum disease in a swath of southeastern and southwestern states. They also determined that concentrated pockets of the disease along the Mississippi Delta and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Elevated patterns of disease were also estimated in other communities scattered across the country, including Native American reservations, remote western areas of Alaska and in parts of southern Florida and Hawaii.

Does your state or community have a problem with gum disease? This new study could offer a clue.

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