In other parts of the world (and by that I mean the US), the UK has something of a reputation when it comes to teeth.
Whether or not the UK is significantly any worse than other developed countries with regard to dental hygiene is certainly questionable: according to a report published in the OECD in 2013, seven in 10 Brits went to the dentist during the previous year, whereas only four in 10 Americans did.
But what is undeniable about our dental health here in the UK is the extent to which it has improved over the last 50 years.
The first ever Adult Dental Health Survey in the UK was compiled in 1968. This report, today published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), has been compiled every decade since then. It provides an insight into the state of Britain’s dental hygiene, measuring oral health and function, and the prevalence of gum disease.
Ultimately, the aim of the survey is to provide the Department of Health with information regarding oral health and the UK’s attitude towards it, so that they can improve NHS services and invest resources appropriately; poor dental health and gum disease can of course lead to more serious conditions, and has even been associated with a raised risk of heart problems and cardiovascular illnesses.
The report does also, however, give the onlooker a valuable insight into just how far oral hygiene has come in the last half century:
- In 1968, a staggering 37% of adults surveyed in the UK were ‘edentate’ (meaning they had no teeth of their own).
- This figure has dropped steadily by around 7-9 percent every ten years.
- In 1968, the percentage of edentate adults aged between 35 and 44 was 22%.
- By 1998 this had dropped to 1%.
When it comes to separate age groups, the improvement between 1998 and 2009 alone is enough to present a striking picture.
In 1998, the percentage of:
- 35-44 year olds edentate was 1%
- 45-54 year olds edentate was 6%
- 55-64 year olds edentate was 20%
- 65-74 year olds edentate was 36%
- those aged 75 and over edentate was 58%
In 2009, the percentage of:
- 35-44 year olds edentate was less than 1%
- 45-54 year olds edentate was 1%
- 55-64 year olds edentate was 5%
- 65-74 year olds edentate was 15%
- 75-84 year olds edentate was 29%
- 85 and overs edentate was 45%
We asked Karen Coates, Oral Health Advisor for British Dental Health Foundation, what she thought were the main reasons behind this improvement:
‘General improved education across society of the causes of dental decay and gum disease has played the most significant role in reducing these figures.’
‘Also, our generally better diets, fluoride toothpaste, improved access to dental services and a greater emphasis on oral hygiene have all contributed to the drop in the number of people with tooth loss.’
A report published in the British Dental Journal in 2000 projected that the UK edentate population would fall to just 4% by 2028. By 2009, it had already fallen to 6%.
It might be optimistic to expect that the percentage of edentate adults in the UK will drop by a further 7-9% to flat out on zero by 2019; even so, Karen is confident that the overall trend of improving tooth retention rates will go on.
‘With the continued education and public awareness of the role that the public themselves can play in prevention of oral health problems there is no reason why this trend should not continue and the numbers of people with tooth loss drop even more.’
Oral health today
This year marks the 40th anniversary of National Smile Month. Taking place from mid-May to mid-June, the campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance of oral hygiene, and is run by the British Dental Health Foundation.
The nation’s oral health has shown drastic improvement in the past 50 years, however this doesn’t mean dental problems are no longer an issue.
Few people realise that good oral health is just as crucial for overall health reasons as it is for aesthetic reasons. Poor dental hygiene can obviously result in pain and discomfort during eating, and most of us are aware that it can also lead to gum disease and infection.
But the potential health risks of poor oral health don’t stop inside the mouth. Gum disease is increasingly becoming linked with other, more serious health conditions, such as stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
Is tooth loss inevitable?
For many, the conception has always been that losing one’s teeth is something which occurs naturally with age; however, this is not the case.
‘Losing your teeth is not something that just happens with age,’ Karen tells us, ‘it is a result of failing to look after them properly across a lifetime. If you look after your teeth and gums well there is no reason that you should not keep your teeth for a whole lifetime.'
Our environment is in many ways more conducive to better oral health than it has been previously. Today, as Karen mentioned, our knowledge is obviously better than it has been in previous decades; and dental services are more accessible.
So what does she think are the biggest challenges to dental health we face today?
‘Dental decay caused by the consumption of sugar too frequently in our daily diet. Sugar comes in many forms and is often ‘hidden’ in the things we eat or drink. We need to be more aware of what we are consuming to try to limit the effect sugar is having on our oral health.’
The danger of ‘hidden’ sugars is perhaps most prevalent in the choices we make when we eat and drink out. In February 2016, a report appeared in the Telegraph which revealed the high content of sugar in a range of beverages from popular chains.
Whereas in the supermarket, information about the sugar content of the product we’re buying may be easily accessible, this is not always the case when we stop for refreshments on the high street.
Not making sugar-rich drinks a habit, and opting for choices which don’t come pre-loaded with sugar (so you can sparingly add your own if required) are orally healthier courses of action.
Putting services to use
It may have been the case in previous decades that dental health services were not always available to everyone; today however, while these services are widely available, not everyone makes use of them. As Karen explains:
‘Another big threat to oral health is gum disease caused by poor oral hygiene and infrequent visits to the dentist or hygienist. We need to make sure we are visiting our dentist regularly, as often as they recommend, so that they can identify and help limit the impact of any problems.’
One of the other great misconceptions, particularly among older adults whose dental health might be failing them, is that it’s too late to turn their oral hygiene habits around, and that nothing they do at such a late stage can make a difference.
But, Karen explains, maintaining good oral hygiene practices is beneficial at any age:
‘It is never too late for people to address their oral health. At any age it is important to understand that you can take important steps to rectify problems and prevent further problems from happening in the future.’
‘Adopting a diet which contains less sugary and acidic foods and drinks and reducing the frequency that they are consumed will have a positive effect at any age, as will a better oral hygiene routine at home.’
Good oral health practices will typically include:
- brushing before going to bed and on at least one other occasion throughout the course of the day
- using floss or an interdental brush to clean between teeth at least once daily
- making and keeping to regular appointments at the dentist, be it every three, six or 12 months (as recommended by your dental practitioner)
- not smoking or quitting if you do smoke
- and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, keeping sugary or alcoholic drinks within sensible limits
To find more information on healthy dental practices, and to learn more about National Smile Month, visit the British Dental Health Foundation website.