Disparities in Oral Health

People of different racial and ethnic backgrounds

Oral health disparities are profound in the United States. Despite major improvements in oral health for the population as a whole, oral health disparities exist for many racial and ethnic groups, by socioeconomic status, gender, age and geographic location.

Some social factors that can contribute to these differences are lifestyle behaviors such as tobacco use, frequency of alcohol use, and poor dietary choices. Just like they affect general health, these behaviors can affect oral health. The economic factors that often relate to poor oral health include access to health services and an individual’s ability to get and keep dental insurance.

Disparities in Oral Health

Some of the oral health disparities that exist include the following:

  • Overall. Non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives generally have the poorest oral health of any racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
  • Children and Tooth Decay. The greatest racial and ethnic disparity among children aged 3–5 years and aged 6–9 years is seen in Mexican American and non-Hispanic black  children.
  • Adults and Untreated Tooth Decay. Blacks, non-Hispanics, and Mexican Americans aged 35–44 years experience untreated tooth decay nearly twice as much as non-Hispanic whites.
  • Tooth Decay and Education. Adults aged 35–44 years with less than a high school education experience untreated tooth decay nearly three times that of adults with at least some college education.
    • In addition, adults aged 35–44 years with less than a high school education experience destructive periodontal (gum) disease nearly three times that of adults with a least some college education.
  • Adults and Oral Cancer. The 5–year survival rate is lower for oral pharyngeal (throat) cancers among black men than whites (35% versus 61%).
  • Adults and Periodontitis. 42% of U.S. adults have some form of periodontitis. In adults aged 65 and older, 59.8% have periodontitis.
    • Periodontitis is higher in men than women, and greatest among Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic blacks, and those with less than a high school education.

Healthy People 2020  Works to Eliminate Oral Health Disparities

Healthy People 2020  is the nation’s framework to improve the health of all Americans. The overarching goals of Healthy People 2020  are to increase quality and years of healthy life and eliminate health disparities. Interventions such as community water fluoridation and school-based dental sealant programs can help achieve this goal.

Community water fluoridation reduces and aids in preventing tooth decay among different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups. Currently, this Healthy People 2020  objective is moving toward its target of 79.6% of community water having fluoride.

School sealant programs provide sealants to children who may not receive routine dental care. This includes children at highest risk for tooth decay: those from low-income families and certain racial and ethnic groups. Sealants are thin plastic coatings applied to the tiny grooves on the chewing surfaces of the teeth.

Visit the following Web sites for more information on oral health disparities:

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