Something is rotten in the United States–our teeth. According to a report released today by the CDC, 20% of Americans have untreated cavities. And if you’re a minority or you’re living in poverty, that rate can be twice as even higher. But it’s not because Americans are lazy, or even because our diets are rich in sugar (though that doesn’t help)–it’s because dental care is really, really expensive. In fact, about a third of Americans have trouble accessing oral health care.
Here are some figures from the study, via WedMD
- 34% of non-Hispanic blacks and 31% of Mexican-Americans had untreated cavities compared to 18% of whites.
- Adults between 20 and 64 were more than twice as likely to have untreated cavities if they were living in poverty (42% vs. 17%).
- 25% of children and teens living in poverty had untreated cavities.
Basically, nice teeth are for wealthy white people. But it’s not because they can afford nicer toothbrushes–it’s because they’re way more likely to have health insurance that includes dental care.
Sure, brushing and flossing are important components of preventative oral health care–but there’s only so much people can do, particularly if they’re living in poverty. For those with enamel defects (because of a poor diet, or because they’re very young or very old, over-brushing, or a litany of other reasons), basic daily care isn’t enough to curb decay and prevent cavities. And once a cavity has developed, professional treatment is required to stop the pain, save the tooth, and prevent further problems. But that’s where it gets sticky–many people who are insured through an employer or otherwise, in an attempt to shore up their personal finances, opt to cut dental care first…if they even had access to it at all. Which many don’t.
Additionally, as the American Dental Association points out, only 2% of money from Medicaid goes to oral health care, and Medicare doesn’t really offer it at all. As a result, the people who need it most–low-income individuals, families living below the poverty line, and the elderly–are all left mostly on their own to pay for fillings and other forms of decay treatment. And really, if it’s the difference between paying the mortgage and getting that sore tooth filled in, most cash-strapped Americans are going to opt for the former.
Oral health care often gets pushed to the back-burner, because it seems less threatening than other ailments or diseases. Unfortunately, rotting teeth can quickly progress into a larger problem, like an infection, an abscess, or gum disease. Left untreated, gum disease can infect the mouth, lungs, and even the heart.
If you have access to dental care, use it. Seek help as soon as you feel pain in your teeth or, better yet, visit your dentist for routine check-ups ever six months. If you don’t have dental care, there are resources available. Check out The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research‘s recommendations for finding low-cost dental care in your area.
Image: Lisa S. via Shutterstock