- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

ATLANTA — Tooth decay in children’s baby teeth is on the rise, a worrying trend that signals preschoolers are eating too much sugar, according to the largest government study of the nation’s dental health in more than 25 years.

The study also noted a drop in the proportion of nonelderly adults who have visited a dentist in the past year — a possible indicator of declining dental insurance.

But there was some good news: Older children have fewer cavities, and adults have less periodontal disease than in the past, and more of the elderly are retaining their teeth.

“Overall, we can say that most Americans are noticing an improvement in their oral health,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Bruce Dye of the National Center for Health Statistics.

Specialists are concerned about the prevalence of cavities in baby teeth of children ages 2 to 5. It increased to 28 percent from 1999 to 2004, in contrast to 24 percent from 1988 to 1994, according to the report.

Tooth decay in young children had been decreasing for 40 years. Some studies have suggested the trend might have ended, but the new report contains the first statistically significant proof the trend has reversed, dental specialists said.

One reason is that parents are giving their children more processed snack foods than in the past, and more bottled water or other drinks instead of fluoridated tap water, Dr. Dye said.

“They’re relying more on fruit snacks, juice boxes, candy and soda” for the sustenance of preschoolers, he said.

Others specialists agree diet is at least part of the explanation for the rising cavity rates.

“The same things contributing to the obesity epidemic can also contribute to tooth decay,” said Dr. Gary Rozier, a dentist who teaches public health policy at the University of North Carolina.

Inadequate dental care may also play a role. Cavities in young children can form very quickly, and parents should begin bringing their children to the dentist at age 1, said Dr. Joel Berg, chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry.

Parents also must help their young children brush properly. “Preschoolers don’t have the dexterity to really clean their teeth,” Dr. Berg said.

Baby teeth naturally fall out as children age, but dentists say untreated decay can spread and is too dangerous to go untreated.

Rotten baby teeth are treated with fillings or — if the decay is extensive — extraction. But baby teeth fill certain spaces in the mouth, so their early removal may lead to crowding when adult teeth come in.

The study is based on an annual federal survey of about 5,000 people. It includes detailed in-person health interviews, and medical and dental examinations by health care professionals.

The study averaged the findings from surveys done from 1988 to 1994 and compared them with the average results from surveys done from 1999 to 2004.

The results are being reported this week at a meeting of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry in Denver.

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