Oral health problems caused students to lose 52 million hours of classroom time in the year 2000. Dushanka Kleinman, the deputy director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at the National Institutes of Health, recently explained how oral health impacts learning in an interview with Da'aiyah Bilal of NEA's Health Information Network.
Q: The surgeon general has made oral health a priority concern. Why has this become such a hot topic?
A: Children miss 52 million hours of school each year due to oral health problems. About 12.5 million days of restricted activity every year results from dental symptoms or treatment visits. Studies have shown a link between oral disease and low birth weight, cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections and diabetes. And tooth decay is five times more common than asthma. Knowing all this, wouldn't you make it a priority to find out more if you were the Surgeon General?
Q: What's the latest on what causes cavities -- and how to prevent them?
A: Dental caries, or tooth decay, is an infection caused by bacteria called streptococcus mutans. Caries are transmitted directly from person to person. Typically, caries are transmitted from an adult mother to child -- think about times when you have seen people taste a child's food before feeding it to the child. In very basic terms, the bacteria thrive on sugar and form acid that eats away at the tooth enamel, causing cavities. If a cavity goes untreated, it can spread to the pulp of the tooth, causing inflammation and a tooth abscess at the root. Eventually, this process ends in a tooth extraction. Cavities can be prevented with sealants. But a great deal of research is now being generated to find out about different modes of transmission. For instance, pregnant mothers with periodontal disease are having their teeth cleaned to see what the connection is between dental caries and low birth weight.
Q: How does poor oral health affect a student's learning or performance?
A: The first thing that comes to my mind is pain. Pain from oral disease will keep students from learning. Any kind of pain or discomfort around the head would distract a child from learning. Pain and swelling are both symptoms of severe disease. Sadly, these severe cases are prevalent in classrooms, especially in low-income areas. More than three-fourths of tooth decay in permanent teeth is found in only one-fourth of children between the ages of 5 and 17. African-American children exhibit twice as much decay as Caucasian children. African-American and Mexican-American children are also three times less likely than Caucasians to have sealants in their permanent teeth.
Q: What can educators do to improve students' oral health?
A: It's important to improve the health literacy of educators, parents and students about basic issues like dental hygiene and risky behavior. Unlike taking care of your ears, for instance, caring for the mouth takes daily attention, as well as access to professional care and the ability to receive care in a timely manner. One particularly important thing to remember: This disease is preventable. Prevention means self care, fluoride and sealants.
Schools can also boost prevention by considering what's in the vending machines they have on site. Vending machines can contribute to a wide range of health problems. I realize that these machines are income-generators for schools, but changing some of their contents could make a difference.
Other strategies are also important. At Washington Heights Junior High in New York City, an emergency dental clinic in the school is helping keep kids in the classroom. Connecticut is trying to implement some statewide treatment and prevention programs. Communities are also launching broad-based education efforts -- talking, for instance, about fluoride in low-income areas where people may not have access to adequate sources of fluoride.
Finally, educators can help by correcting misconceptions. For example, oral health has been considered a luxury, not a necessity. People don't think oral health has any serious effect on overall health. You hear people constantly say things like, "Oh, they're just baby teeth, they'll fall out anyway." They don't realize that if you have dental caries early in childhood, you have a good predictor of future decay.
Remember, only a dentist can diagnose your dental problems and offer the right treatment plan for you. If you need a dentist, call us at 1-866-970-0441 to be connected with one today.