Federal data brief updates on decay rates among U.S. children

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.

Eleanor Fleming

The good news: In recent years, tooth decay rates have significantly decreased for American children.

Overall, 43.1 percent of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 experienced decay in primary and permanent teeth in 2015-16, down from 50 percent reported in 2011-12.

Untreated tooth decay also declined among U.S. children during the most recent study period, according to the federal findings just published.

Working with data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, investigators found that 13 percent of US youths had untreated decay in 2015-2016, down from 16.1 percent in 2011–2012, according to findings published in April in a National Center for Health Statistics data brief.

Now for the bad news: Tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease of U.S. youths aged 6 to 19, researchers concluded. And the disease known as dental caries continues to place a disproportionate burden on minority and low-income youth.

Hispanic and black children remain more likely than white or Asian children to have decay and untreated decay, which can result in pain, worsening infection and tooth loss.

In 2015-16, the prevalence of dental disease was highest among Hispanic children (52 percent) compared with their black (44.3 percent), Asian (42.6 percent), and white (39 percent) peers. The prevalence of untreated decay was highest among black children (17.1 percent) followed by Hispanic (13.5 percent), white (11.7 percent) and Asian (10.5 percent) youth. Researchers also found that children from more affluent families experienced less decay and untreated decay than poorer children.

Slightly more than one third (34.2 percent) of youth from families with income levels greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level had tooth decay while more than half (51.8 percent) of children living below the federal poverty level had decay. And while in 2015-2016, 7 percent of children from higher-income families had untreated decay, 18.6 percent of children living below the poverty level did.

Decay prevalence was lowest in the youngest cohort of children during the 2015-16 study period, investigators found. Among children aged 2-to-5, the decay rate stood at 17.7 percent; for 6- to 11-year-olds, the rate was 45.2 percent. Children in the 12-to-19 age group experienced decay at a rate of 53.5 percent.

Photo: Patrick via Flickr

“The take-home message from this report is that there are differences in untreated and total caries (tooth decay) by age group, race and Hispanic origin, and income,” noted the study’s lead author, dental epidemiologist Eleanor Fleming in a Q&A on the findings featured in a recent NCHStats blog.

“The trend analysis shows that the prevalence of untreated and total caries are decreasing,” Fleming said. “However, there are still disparities that exist. Because monitoring prevalence of untreated and total caries is key to preventing and controlling oral diseases, these disparities are important.”

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