New study helps document role of oral health in overall health of Hispanics

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: Ann Fisher via Flickr

More than half of U.S. Hispanic adults suffer from dental pain, have difficulty eating or report other oral problems that impact their quality of life, according to new findings gleaned from a major federal research project.

The conclusions are just the latest from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) a multi-center, population-based project.

Since 2006, HCHS/SOL has made a mission of collecting data on a wide variety of chronic diseases and health conditions – everything from dental disease and smoking habits to diabetes, heart and liver disease, stroke and asthma to hearing problems. The project’s goal is giving researchers the chance to provide a baseline for describing and understanding the health of the nation’s increasingly diverse Hispanic and Latino populations.

The new paper, published in the journal Ethnicity and Health, finds that overall, 57 percent of Hispanic and Latino adults report poor oral health-related quality of life in at least one area of concern. Forty-five percent of participants reported experiencing oro-facial pain in the past year; 21 percent said they had difficulty eating or chewing within the past 12 months. Among the participants, 38 percent had moderate to severe gum disease and 31 percent had untreated tooth decay.

In addition to looking at oral health across the U.S. Hispanic and Latino population, the new findings provide a more nuanced look at oral health among specific Hispanic heritage groups and associations between acculturation, ethnic identity and oral health-related quality of life. These are subject areas where not enough is known, study co-authors Bruce Dye and Marushka Silveira observed in response to an email.

“The oral health-related quality of life literature in the Hispanic/Latino population is limited, especially within heritage groups. This study leverages the strengths of the Hispanic/Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, one of the most comprehensive study of Hispanics/Latinos in the United States with sufficient sample sizes to examine variation by Hispanic/Latino background,” the authors wrote.

The study’s findings were drawn from physical exams, questionnaires and health data collected from 13,172 Hispanic/Latino adults with natural teeth living in stable communities in the Bronx, Chicago, Miami and San Diego. Participants included Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans of varying backgrounds.

“Our study showed that cultural factors such as acculturation and ethnic identity were associated with some but not all aspects of OH-related quality of life,” observed the researchers, both based at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

As with other HCHS/SOL efforts, the new paper’s findings are intended to help inform strategies to improve individual and population health.

“Life satisfaction — expressed as quality of life, is very important to patients. Incorporating culturally-appropriate health education and treatment approaches in clinical care that build on personal beliefs and values will help to facilitate decision making that results in better patient outcomes,” the authors noted.

“Our findings also inform the development of community based oral health promotion programs that aim to improve OH-related quality of life in this diverse population,” wrote Dye and Silveira.

The funding for HCHS/SOL is slated to end Nov. 30. Contracts to continue the project have been issued and awarded they would fund another six-year cycle of research into the health and disease of U.S. Hispanics and Latinos, according to Karen Gruebnau, a press officer at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which has helped to oversee the project since its beginning.

Maybe now is a good time to explore a listing of the dozens of published papers authored by researchers working with HCHS/SOL. April is recognized as National Minority Health Month and events are planned that could be additional sources of story ideas. For reporting resources, check out this new tip sheet.

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