Health Advice



No, it's not just sugary food that's responsible for poor oral health in America's children, especially in Appalachia

Mary L. Marazita, Director, Center for Craniofacial and Dental Genetics; Professor of Oral Biology and of Human Genetics, University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences and Daniel W. McNeil, Eberly Distiniguished Professor Emeritus, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Dental Public Health & Professional Practice, West Virginia University, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

Just as important are environmental factors, including air quality, access to healthy foods, the cost of dental care, access to transportation to and from the dentist, and school-based programs that encourage good oral hygiene among children. Whether one lives in a community with fluoridated water or otherwise has access to fluoride treatments is also important, as fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay. Water quality in communities is another factor. If the only available water is toxic or unappealing, people may turn to soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Additionally, mothers’ perceived social support and parents’ social networks can influence their children’s oral health too. Among mothers with a high number of cavities, the availability of someone to talk to about problems has been shown to be associated with fewer cavities in their children.

Parents’ and caregivers’ own oral health greatly influences that of their children. Kids and their parents typically drink the same water and many of the same beverages and eat a lot of the same foods. Children often follow the dental hygiene habits of their parents as well. Children typically take on their parents’ and caregivers’ feelings about dental visits too – whether it’s comfort, stress, anxiety or fear.

Parents’ thoughts about dental care influence their decisions about preventive care. Dental fear and anxiety can lead to delay or avoidance of dental appointments for themselves and their children. “Oral health values” – the importance one places on maintaining natural and good-looking teeth – affect decision-making about dental hygiene and professional dental care. Depression in parents can even influence their own dental hygiene and oral health and that of their children.

Dental problems in kids can lead to missed school, pain and embarrassment about visible decay, and missing or crooked teeth. Teeth and gums are critical for speaking, eating, development and appearance. They affect social functioning and one’s enjoyment of food. Kids’ dental problems affect their parents, too, as they can result in parents’ unexpectedly missing work to bring their child to the dentist.

To a great extent, dental problems in kids can be prevented. Some preventive steps are affected by economic, educational and health care factors. One of the best things parents or caregivers can do is to establish a relationship for their child with a dental practitioner, practice, office or clinic to promote prevention but also to provide emergency care if needed. Within the oral health world, this relationship is called a “dental home.” The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and other professional health organizations recommend that children see an oral health care provider before age 1 or at the emergence of the first tooth. Access to dental treatment, especially preventive care, has been shown to improve oral health in families and their communities.

System-level changes are surely needed too. Since cost affects whether parents can provide their children with routine dental care, greater access to dental insurance is an important step to ensuring equal access and reducing oral health inequities. Integrating oral health practices into schools and educational programs is another system-level change that would benefit all children regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status.


Oral health is a critical factor in a person’s overall health. Teaching kids this early can help them develop a healthy smile and care for their pearly whites throughout their lives.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Daniel W. McNeil, West Virginia University and Mary L. Marazita, University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences. Like this article? subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Read more:
The truth about tooth decay

How did people clean their teeth in the olden days?

Daniel W. McNeil receives funding from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Mary L. Marazita receives funding from the National Institutions of Health, specifically the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).


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