Fewer adults visiting the dentist

Children’s visits increasing

Parents might be setting a poor example when it comes to dental health: Though more children are visiting the dentist, fewer adults than ever are, according to new research.

Research from the American Dental Association's Health Policy Resources Center shows that adults’ dental visits have declined while children’s visits have increased from 2000 and 2010.

The dental utilization gap between high-income and low-income adults grew across the country, while the gap between high-income and low-income children shrank, which the authors of the analysis attribute to greater efforts by states to improve dental coverage for all children.

“The improvement in dental care utilization among low-income children during the past decade— in almost every state—is definitely a cause for celebration,” wrote  Marko Vujicic , managing vice president of the HPRC and lead author of the briefs. “Challenges remain, however, and it remains to be seen if the progress is sustained or stalls. Where our analysis ought to raise concern is with the downward trend in dental care utilization among low-income adults.”

Dental care utilization among low-income children increased in 47 states from 2000-2010. Researchers say that’s in part due to improvements in some states’ Medicaid programs, the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and expansion of other the dental safety net programs targeting children. Only Massachusetts and Virginia experienced statistically significant increases in utilization for both low-income adults and children.

But researchers say there isn’t a clear reason why adults haven’t been visiting the dentist. Though it’s natural to expect that fewer adults would seek non-emergency dental care in the poor economic climate, the trend actually began prior to the economic downturn, a finding researchers call disturbing.

“This should be a wakeup call to anyone who doubts what we have been saying for years: Millions of Americans aren’t getting the dental care they need, and many are suffering with untreated disease that affects their overall health,” said ADA President Robert Faiella.

The percentage of adults who reported going to the dentist dropped from a peak of 41 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2010. Adults in the 35-49 age group experienced the largest decline in utilization, dropping from 43 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2010.  

In terms of household income, adult dental care utilization declined across the entire spectrum during the 2000s but was most pronounced among lower income adults. For middle income adults, utilization declined from 38 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2010. Utilization among higher income adults decreased from 54 percent to 51 percent.

“Three things need to happen in order to see real improvements,” Faiella said. “Obviously we need to deliver care now to those already suffering with disease.  But merely intervening in disease that has already occurred is a losing battle.  Ultimately, people need to be in a continuum of preventive care, and they need the knowledge—oral health literacy—that empowers them to become stewards of their own oral health.”

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