Oral health of blacks, Mexican Americans significantly worse than that of whites, UB study finds

June 15, 2000

SEATTLE -- African Americans and Mexican Americans have significantly poorer oral health than non-Hispanic whites in the United States, and men have more periodontal disease than women, a study of national data by University at Buffalo epidemiologists has shown.

The findings come on the heels of the U.S. surgeon general's first report on the nation's oral health released in late May, which called dental and oral diseases a "silent epidemic" in the United States, with the burden falling heavily on certain population groups. There is growing evidence -- some developed by UB faculty -- that oral infections may be a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted from 1988-94 showed that close to half of African-American men and one-third of African-American women in the survey had periodontal disease.

For whites, the incidence was approximately one-quarter and one-sixth for men and women, respectively. Incidence of periodontal disease in Mexican Americans fell between these two groups, at approximately one-third of men and one-fourth of women.

Results of the research were presented here today (June 16) at the annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic Research by Tiejian Wu, M.D., Ph.D., research assistant professor in the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and lead author on the study.

Wu said the reasons for the significant differences between whites and African Americans remain a mystery. "We believe this is a very complex issue and there are lots of question to answer," he said.

"It could be a matter of less use of dental services, especially preventive dental care, due either to perceptions regarding the need for dental care or limited access to it. Ethnic groups also may have different inflammatory responses."

To assess periodontal-disease prevalence in the three ethnic groups in question, Wu and colleagues analyzed data from NHANES III on 5,077 men (1,930 whites, 1,460 African Americans and 1,687 Mexican Americans) and 5,679 women (2,234 whites, 1,748 African Americans and 1,697 Mexican Americans).

Periodontitis was defined as pocket depth of more than 3 millimeters and attachment loss of more than 4 millimeters on one or more teeth. The study was confined to people at least 17 years old who had at least six teeth examined.

Analysis showed that 23.1 percent of white men and 16.2 percent of white women had periodontitis, compared to 44.1 percent of African-American men and 33.4 percent of African-American women. The percentages for Mexican-American men and women were 37.3 and 24.7, respectively.

"We really need to go further to try to identify the reason for these differences," Wu said, "because periodontal health has a critical relationship with general health and well-being."

Also participating in the research were Maurizio Trevisan, M.D., and Christopher Sempos, Ph.D., of the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, and Robert J. Genco, D.D.S., Ph.D., of the UB Department of Oral Biology.

University at Buffalo

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