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America's dental health improving, study says

WASHINGTON—Americans have healthier teeth than they had a decade ago.

The number of cavities in the average mouth is down and people are keeping their teeth longer, according to a federal study released Thursday.

The tooth decay decline was greatest among kids but holds "across every group," said Dr. William Maas, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Oral Health. The unit's study compared U.S. dental health in two periods: between 1988-1994 and 1999-2002.

Although all racial, economic and age groups showed improvement, the study found that lower-income people and minorities had more dental problems than other groups.

"There's always been a disparity," Maas said.

The survey found that in the more recent period:

_Only two out of five kids ages 6 to 19 had cavities in their lives. That's down from half a decade ago.

_The proportion of people age 60 who'd lost all their teeth had decreased from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4.

_Use of dental sealants, which block tooth decay in kids' vulnerable molars, was up 64 percent. Three out of 10 kids had at least one sealed tooth.

_Adults with more than high school degrees had an average of three more teeth than those without high school degrees, 25 vs. 22.

_Smokers remain three times more likely than non-smokers to lose all their teeth.

Maas credited the improvements to water fluoridation, which now reaches two-thirds of Americans, and widespread use of fluoridated toothpaste. Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay.

Another factor: new and less painful techniques for treating tooth decay that don't scare as many people away from dentists.

Maas also said that school-based efforts urging low-income kids to brush their teeth and see dentists were paying off.

Among adults, however, a third of low-income Americans have untreated tooth decay compared with 16 percent of middle- and upper-income adults. The disparity holds for their children: 19 percent of kids living in poverty have untreated tooth decay compared with 8 percent of wealthier kids.

Regular dental care and costly treatments such as dental sealants are the big differences, Maas said. "We need to make these services available to everyone."

The CDC's report is based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an annual study of representative samples of America's population. The complete report is available online at www.cdc.gov/mmwr.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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