FRANKFORT, Ky. — In the first study of its kind in 15 years, a statewide survey has found that dental problems have increased significantly among young children in a state with a long history of poor oral health among children and adults.
Despite having more access to dentists and more families with dental insurance, screenings of children show that the need for treatment has increased significantly, according to a survey presented today to the House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
The survey, which screened more than 2,000 children in third and sixth grades across the state, found that 41 percent had untreated cavities and that the rate of tooth decay was much greater in Eastern Kentucky. In that region, with some of poorest counties, more than half of third and sixth graders — roughly 15,100 children — had untreated cavities.
And poor children tend so suffer the worst dental problems, such as infections and abscessed gums, “giving further evidence that socioeconomic status is in the strongest determinant of a child’s oral health status,” the survey found.
More than half the children did not have sealants, which protect teeth against cavities.
The survey was conducted by Delta Dental of Kentucky, Kentucky Youth Advocates and the University of Louisville School of Dentistry during the 2015-16 school year.
In all, 2,109 third and sixth grade students in 60 public elementary and middle schools participated in the survey that included screening by a dentist to assess the oral health of participants.
Dr. Hector Martinez, a professor of pediatric dentistry at U of L involved in planning the survey, said it provides valuable information to the state about what it needs to do improve oral health of children.
“We have a lot of good, reliable data,” he said.
But it provided a sobering look at the problems Kentucky is facing with children suffering from dental decay, infections and other complications of what he said is the number one chronic disease among children.
“The sad part of the story is that we are still seeing very aggressive things, chronic disease,” said Martinez, who treats young patients at U of L’s pediatric dental clinic.
Good oral health is essential for children to thrive free from pain and infection, succeed in school and grow into healthy adults, the survey said
The last such statewide survey, conducted in 2001 by the University of Kentucky, found that nearly half of Kentucky’s young children suffered from untreated dental decay.
Dental health professionals at the time said it was essential to improve oral health among Kentucky’s children before they become adults with even worse problems in a state with consistently high rates of dental disease and one of the nation’s highest rates of adults with no teeth.
Martinez said the current survey underscores how important it is for parents to ensure children get early, regular dental care.
“That’s why this research is so important,” he said. “We are trying to catch their attention.”