Speaking of Oral Health

Everyone wants to have a gorgeous smile, but it often takes a trip to the dentist before most of us get serious about the health of our teeth and gums. It’s important to remember that oral health is a big component of overall health for everyone – from toddlers, to children, to teens and of course as adults. Oral health can also predict the quality of our lives down the road, as many chronic, noncommunicable diseases have similar risk factors – and can even cause major tooth decay and gum disease.

According to a study updated in 2021, the percentage of North Dakotans experiencing tooth decay, tooth loss and gum disease has improved significantly in the past two decades, yet many families still lack access to important dental treatments. For every adult without medical insurance, there are three who don’t have dental insurance. This need is even greater for members of some racial and ethnic groups — for example 3 in 4 Hispanics and non-Hispanic Black adults have an unmet need for dental treatment. Also, most people in lower income brackets still struggle to find affordable dental care.

What causes cavities anyway?

Tooth decay is caused by bacteria and other things, including food (sugars and starches) that is left on teeth. The “sticky” kind of bacteria is called plaque, which forms on your teeth constantly and turns these foods into acids that destroy tooth enamel.

Kids and Oral Health

Good oral health habits should start with baby’s first tooth, especially since the enamel on children’s teeth is not as hard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dental cavities are the most common chronic disease in children and teens in the United States.

Tooth decay can have impacts that go far beyond the mouth, too. In addition to the pain of a sore tooth, and a higher risk of new decay in other teeth, the CDC notes that children with cavities miss more school and receive lower grades, and they may also experience lower self-esteem as well as issues with social development.

Adults and Oral Health

According to the CDC, over a quarter of Americans (26%) have untreated tooth decay, while almost half (46%) of all U.S. adults 30 years or older show signs of gum disease. In North Dakota, 34.4% of adults had lost six or more of their natural teeth due to decay or gum disease. Nationally, this number is 34%. Unfortunately, problems stemming from tooth decay and gum disease increase as we age. This increase may be due to problems with saliva production, receding gums, difficulties flossing and brushing because of poor vision, cognitive problems and physical limitations as we get older.

If left untreated, cavities and gum disease can lead to tooth loss. Most oral diseases and conditions also share risk factors with many leading causes of death such as heart disease, respiratory illness and diabetes.

8 Tips for Oral Health

Thankfully, most tooth decay, gum disease and oral health problems are preventable. To keep your family’s smiles healthy and bright, the CDC recommends these oral health tips:

  1. Brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day and use a fluoride toothpaste.
  2. Floss daily between your teeth to remove as much dental plaque as possible.
  3. Visit your dentist at least once a year, even if you have no natural teeth or have dentures.
  4. Don’t use any tobacco products. If you smoke, quit.
  5. Be sure to use alcohol in moderation.
  6. If you have diabetes, work to maintain control of the disease. This will decrease the risk for other complications, including gum disease.
  7. See your doctor or dentist if you have sudden changes in taste and smell. (Remember, this can also be a symptom of COVID-19.)
  8. If you’re caring for someone else like an older adult, help them brush and floss their teeth.

Bonus TIP: Prevention with Good Old h2O

You can do something else each and every day to improve your oral health: drink tap water! Tap water contains fluoride, a mineral that protects teeth from cavities. The CDC reports that drinking fluoridated water reduces cavities by 25% over our lifetime. In North Dakota, more than 96% of the population is served by a community water system that is fluoridated. Nationally, this is only 73%. Children living in communities with fluoridated tap water have fewer cavities than children whose water is not fluoridated. All sources of water — lakes, rivers, and groundwater — contain some fluoride and most cities adjust the naturally occurring fluoride in the water to levels for maximum cavity reductions. Bottled water does not contain fluoride.

In addition to preventing tooth decay, water is the healthiest drink that children or adults can consume. Drink more water to:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Protect your joints
  • Keep your body at the right temperature
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Reduce the risk of diabetes

If you’re living in our great state, there’s even more good news. Most of the tap water that public water systems provide in North Dakota contains just the right amount of fluoride! In fact, nearly 690,000 citizens receive fluoridated tap water, placing North Dakota in the top five of all U.S. states. 

Remember, you can start practicing these tips for oral health at any age! You’ll be healthier overall – AND you’ll have a dazzling smile! For more information, visit the HHS Oral Health program website at hhs.nd.gov/health/oral-health-program.