Tip Sheets

Oral health and Hispanics

Mary Otto
Mary Otto

By Mary Otto

Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, and they face a measurable disadvantage when it comes to oral health. They experience more oral disease than white Americans and often face barriers in getting care. Yet dentally speaking, they are far from a homogeneous group.  

New research , including a paper published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) finds a remarkable variety in the oral health status of American Hispanics from differing national and regional backgrounds. The August JADA paper, which examines periodontal (gum) disease, reveals significant differences in disease incidence among Americans identifying as Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican Central American and South American.  

Puerto Ricans fare the worst in terms of severe periodontal disease, while  Dominicans have the healthiest gums, the study finds. The study follows an equally detailed study published in June, also in JADA, that looked at tooth decay and tooth loss among  Hispanics and Latinos.  

Both studies draw upon data gathered from more than 14,000 Hispanic and Latino adults in four U.S, cities who participated in the landmark Hispanic Community Health  Study/Study of Latinos ( HCHS/SOL,)  a multi-center study of  Hispanic/Latino populations designed to learn more about the  role of acculturation in the prevalence and development of disease, and to determine  risk factors playing a protective or harmful role in Hispanics/Latinos.

Yet riddles remain, the authors acknowledged in the August JADA paper. While socioeconomics, acculturation, dental health care use and genetic factors may play important roles in periodontal health and disease, “how these factors may influence periodontitis differentially according to Hispanic or Latino background is uncertain as has been shown for other health outcomes,” they concluded.

Even so, these new findings could serve as a useful peg for a story about  the oral health of  Hispanics and Latinos in your own state or community.   

If you decide to take a look, here are some additional resources that might be helpful.

The new JADA papers focused upon oral health and disease among Hispanic and Latino  adults. Previous research has highlighted the burden of oral disease upon Hispanic children. Data from a  national survey found a full 26 percent of Hispanic 6- to 9-year olds suffered from untreated tooth decay, compared with 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children of the same age.

A shortage of Hispanic dentists contributes to oral health disparities in Hispanic communities, according to the Hispanic Dental Association, which examined the problem in a white paper.

“As of the 2010 US Census Bureau population report, there were over 50 million individuals of Hispanic descent living in the United States. This number was 16.3 percent of the total 2010 U.S. population,” the paper observed. “The 2010 US census reported 161,305 active dentists in America, with only 8,650 being Hispanic and the remaining 152,655 being non-Hispanic… thus Hispanic dentists represent only 5.36 percent of active dentists as compared to the 16.3 percent Hispanic population. This statistic alone pointedly illustrates the disparity between Hispanic and Non-Hispanic dentists.”

Another report produced by the Hispanic Dental Association and based upon a national survey found that two in three (65 percent) Hispanic respondents encountered at least one dental problem in a recent year, compared to 53 percent of the general population.

More than one-third (36 percent) of Hispanic respondents said they had experienced oral health problems severe enough to impact their daily activities over the past year, compared to just one in five in the general population. The Hispanic Dental Association works to expand the Hispanic dental workforce as a way of increasing access to care to underserved communities.  

In another measure geared toward addressing that need, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health earlier this year unveiled an e-learning program aimed at providing oral health professionals with knowledge, skills and cultural competency to better serve minority populations.

The program is part of a larger Think Cultural Health initiative that offers free, online educational programs to health care and disaster workers with a stated goal of advancing health equity through the development and promotion of culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

Finally, the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project took a broader look at economic and  health factors impacting the  ten largest Hispanic origin groups in America in a 2012 study.