Sometimes you have to marvel at our species’ collective progress. Almost every day breakthroughs in science and technology are transforming how we live and interact with the world around us. In medicine alone, new theories of disease, new vaccines and new treatment methods promise to vastly extend human life. Last month it was reported again that sometime in the not-too-distant future, many of us could be living to around 120.
But just when you think nothing could blunt such horizon-expanding optimism, we receive a dose of reality: a new study published in the Journal of Dental Research finds that tooth decay remains a pressing problem for more than 2.4 billion people. That’s about a third of the entire human race. And to make matters worse, some 190 million new cases are estimated each year.
In an age where miracles like a heart transplant can occur from a cadaver, bionic eyes are developed for the blind, and an artificial skull transplant was completed using a 3D-printer — all achieved in 2014 alone — how can this be?
There are several factors at work here. First, tooth decay often exhibits threshold event or “tipping point” tendencies. In science, thresholds are moments where after periods of continual stimulus, a sudden new state is achieved. The term is used frequently in climate studies and posed as a question. How much additional carbon dioxide emissions from industry will push the Earth’s climate into a new state?
When Your Mouth Runs Amok
Like climate change, tooth decay is a slow and deceptively sneaky process. The time it takes a microcavity (enamel layer tooth decay) to grow into a pulp-damaging abscess can be measured in months and years. And during that long interlude, few symptoms may manifest. And if they do emerge, like hyper sensitivity to hot and cold foods and beverages, they can easily be ignored. But eventually, that threshold is crossed. Perhaps the patient bites down and their tooth shatters. Or perhaps intermittent, easily dismissed pain, becomes excruciating. Long before the threshold is crossed, significant damage has been done.
Beyond unintentional patient neglect, economics and diet also play a significant role. Even in wealthier countries like the U.S. and the U.K., there remains great disparity of dental visitation rates between rich and poor. In fact, a recent study conducted by Newcastle University found that dental health was worse among the poorest 20% of British society. By the time these individuals reach 70, they have on average eight fewer teeth than their richest counterparts. In terms of diet, our overly processed, high-sugar products are assaulting our teeth like never before.
Admitting as much, earlier this month the World Health Organization announced new guidelines calling for people to consume no more than 6-12 teaspoons of sugar a day if the world wanted to get serious about combating obesity and tooth decay. In case you’re wondering, the average American consumes 18 teaspoons of sugar a day, a whopping 200% above the minimum recommended amount.
Give Tooth Decay the Time-Out it Deserves
Tooth decay may not grab the evening headlines like the threat of terrorism, the latest medical advances, or March Madness basketball scores. But when tooth decay impacts a third of the human population, you can bet it’s on the minds of the worlds dentists. If left unchecked, tooth decay can negatively impact a patient’s life in a variety of ways, ranging from malnutrition and articulation troubles, to social anxiety and barriers to employment.
This spring, as billions of us embrace the warmer months ahead and yes, perform a little spring cleaning, let’s remind our patients via marketing and direct outreach, that now would be a great time to make a dental appointment. A patient may not recognize that their once-minor tooth decay has become something more serious, but a dentist certainly will.
If humans really are going to live to 120 on a regular basis, tackling tooth decay is a must.