Study Links Stress To Mothers' Oral Health

July 09, 1996

Study Links Stress to Mothers' Oral Health
Contact: Judith Bailey,
Case Western Reserve University


CLEVELAND -- Women lose a tooth for every pregnancy, according to an old wives' tale. A pilot study at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry seems to support this folk wisdom, though the researchers and those proverbial wives would not agree on why.

The old saying is based on the erroneous belief that the developing fetus draws calcium from the mother's teeth, thus causing cavities. The CWRU researchers believe the explanation may be found not in pregnancy, but in the stress associated with child care.

The researchers compared the oral health and psychological status of 32 women aged 25 to 35 -- all patients at the CWRU dental clinic. Ten had from one to four children each, while 22 had no children.

The mothers had a mean number of five missing teeth, far more than the 0.3 missing in women without children -- a statistically significant difference, according to researchers.

Besides the tooth loss, other "definite trends suggest that women without children have better oral health," observes Ravi Smith, the student who conducted the dental screenings. Based on mean numbers, the childless women had fewer decayed surfaces than mothers (1.54 versus 3.2) and fewer filled surfaces (13 v. 17.4).

The study was developed by T. Roma Jasinevicius, assistant professor of restorative dentistry, based on her observations over some 20 years. "I had noticed in my practice that many of my patients with young children seemed to have poorer oral health, such as more gum bleeding and deeper pockets between teeth and gums, but it didn't appear they were negligent with their oral hygiene," she said.

In the CWRU study, researchers measured the amount of plaque -- the sticky, colorless film of bacteria that constantly forms on the teeth -- to assess the subjects' oral hygiene. In mean numbers, women with children had 25.1 plaque surfaces -- nearly identical to the 25.7 in childless women. "This indicates there really isn't any difference in their oral hygiene," observes Smith.

To assess psychological status, researchers used the Multiple Affect Adjective Check List (MAACL), which asks patients to check off words to describe their current feelings. Women with children scored higher in levels of anxiety (53.2 v. 47.5), depression (56.1 v. 48.6) and hostility (55.7 v. 53.2). While these differences are not statistically significant, notes Jasinevicius, they suggest a trend she hopes to explore further in a larger study.

For now, she advises mothers of young children to be especially careful with their oral hygiene. "Based on our findings, we do think their stress levels are exacerbating how the gums respond to normal plaque levels," she said.

Case Western Reserve University

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