There’s startling news for parents getting ready to send their kids back to school: poor oral health can put kids at a serious disadvantage in school.
Scientists from the Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California came to this conclusion after examining nearly 1,500 socioeconomically disadvantaged elementary and high school children in the Los Angeles Unified School District and matching their oral health status to academic achievement and attendance records.
They previously documented that 73 percent of disadvantaged children in Los Angeles have dental caries. The new study, published in September’s American Journal of Public Health Dentistry under the title, "The Impact of Oral Health on the Academic Performance of Disadvantaged Children," shines light on the specific connection between oral health and this population.
Poor oral health doesn’t just appear to be connected to lower grades, said Dr. Roseann Mulligan, chair of the school’s Division of Dental Public Health and Pediatric Dentistry and corresponding author of the study. Dental problems also seem to cause more absences from school for kids and more missed work for parents. According to study results, children who reported having recent tooth pain were four times more likely to have a low grade point average—below the median GPA of 2.8—when compared to children without oral pain.
"On average, elementary children missed a total of 6 days per year, and high school children missed 2.6 days. For elementary students, 2.1 days of missed school were due to dental problems, and high school students missed 2.3 days due to dental issues," said Dr. Mulligan. "That shows oral health problems are a very significant factor in school absences. Also, parents missed an average of 2.5 days of work per year to care for children with dental problems."
One factor that determined whether children miss school due to dental health problems was the accessibility of dental care. Eleven percent of children who had limited access to dental care—due to lack of insurance, lack of transportation or other barriers—missed school due to their poor oral health, as opposed to only four percent of children who had easier access to dental care.
"Our data indicates that for disadvantaged children there is an impact on students’ academic performance due to dental problems," said Dr. Mulligan. "We recommend that oral health programs must be more integrated into other health, educational and social programs, especially those that are school-based.
"Furthermore, widespread population studies are needed to demonstrate the enormous personal, societal and financial burdens that this epidemic of oral disease is causing on a national level," she said.
The American Dental Association advises parents to make dental exams a regular part of their back-to-school routine along with sports physicals, health exams and necessary immunizations. During a professional cleaning and oral exam, a dentist will remove plaque bacteria from teeth to help fix early decay. Dentists can also advise parents about effective preventive measures for children’s teeth, such as the use of sealants and fluoride, and brushing and flossing techniques, as well as mouthguards for any sport or activity that could result in a blow to the face or mouth.
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