Bad teeth blamed on unhealthy adult lifestyle

People with bad teeth can no longer blame childhood habits. A new study has found that, contrary to common perceptions, an unhealthy adult lifestyle is responsible for poor oral health in later years.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, studied data collected from over 300 people. They discovered that the relationship between family background and problems with the teeth and gums diminished with increasing age and eventually became almost insignificant.

Adults who smoked and those from more deprived social circumstances were more likely to suffer tooth loss, the study revealed.

The findings, published today, June 24 2004, in the Journal of Dental Research*, suggest that public health interventions relating to oral health should target adults as well as children.

They may also provide additional justification for recent UK Government initiatives to change the way dentistry is practised in the UK, moving away from payment for disease treatment and towards a more preventive approach for adults. This may include smoking cessation advice as part of the dental team’s role.

Studying the number of teeth retained provides a diary of oral health over time because tooth decay and gum disease are both cumulative and ultimately result in tooth loss.

The Newcastle University research found that the more cigarettes a person smoked, the more teeth he or she was likely to lose. Dental studies show that smoking restricts the blood flow in the gums, leading to disease and tooth loss.

In addition, previous research has shown that poor health behaviour, such as smoking, and social circumstances in adult life are also associated with poor oral health regimes such as infrequent tooth brushing and irregular dental attendance.

The Newcastle team used data from the Thousand Families Study, a public health research project which has collected data from a cross-section of children born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1947.

The team studied information taken from 337 volunteers during the early years, together with more recent data on adult health and lifestyle collected at age 50 years.

Lead researcher, Dr Mark Pearce, who is director of the Thousand Families Study, said: “Damage to teeth and gums happens over a long period of time and is irreversible.

“These findings demonstrate that it is just as important for adults to look after their teeth and gums as children, and that good oral healthcare habits shouldn’t stop when people leave their family home.

Dr Pearce, of Newcastle University’s School of Clinical Medical Sciences, added: “Even if people aren’t used to following a toothcare regime, it’s never too late for them to start.

“They can’t turn the clock back but they can increase their chances of maintaining a good set of teeth into their old age – something which is very significant when you consider life expectancy is increasing all the time.”

Professor Jimmy Steele, of Newcastle University’s School of Dental Sciences, a member of the research team, said: “Even people who look after their teeth when they are children may slip into bad habits when they leave home and indulge in an unhealthy lifestyle as young adults.

“It’s common for chocolate bars to be substituted for meals, or for regular teeth brushing to stop. In fact, studies show that men aged 20-30 are the worst at looking after their oral health.

“Maintaining a healthy set of teeth is very important though, particularly as it has many other health benefits.

“People with good teeth can continue to enjoy a varied and healthy diet well into old age, which in turn leads to improved wellbeing and increased confidence in themselves and their bodies.”

The research was funded by PPP Healthcare, the Wellcome Trust, the Minnie Henderson Trust, the Sir John Knott Trust and the Special Trustees of Newcastle Hospitals.

Top toothcare tips – Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste – Avoid eating sugary food, particularly between meals – Stop smoking – Take professional advice about looking after your teeth/ MF – Chew sugar-free gum, particularly those containing the sweetener xylitol, after meals to protect teeth from decay.

Case study:

Pam Walton attributes her beaming, healthy white smile to a rigorous tooth care regime – but she hasn’t always been quite so diligent.

In fact Pam, 51, a research technician from Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, mainly ignored dental health advice as a child. A tooth extraction after a painful bout of tooth decay was the wake-up call she needed, at the age of 16.

She said: “I didn’t really look after my teeth as a child and I absolutely hated going for dental check-ups. I was so frightened when I was sat in the patients’ chair I would spend my time fighting the dentist off.

“The turning point was when I had my tooth taken out. It was around the time when I was getting interested in boys and spending more time looking after my personal appearance in general.”

Today Pam, who has had no further teeth extracted but has some fillings and crowns, makes sure that she visits her dentist every six months. Twice a day, she follows a toothcare regime that includes flossing, brushing with both an ordinary and interdental brush, and she sometimes uses mouthwash. She has never smoked.

Pam, who has two grown-up children, added: “I have always encouraged my own children to look after their teeth, and neither has even had a filling.”

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