For many parents, their child’s oral health is one area that, despite its importance, is hard to control. That’s because once children are old enough to manage their own oral hygiene, it often falls by the wayside. Whether children aren’t brushing as often or as well as they should be or they are skipping crucial oral hygiene steps like flossing, it can add up to cavities, plaque and even gum disease.
Parents may even be lulled into a false sense of security, because after all children’s teeth are baby teeth and will eventually fall out. But that line of thinking could have dangerous repercussions that follow children well into adulthood. Here’s why.
"The first problem with ignoring bad oral health habits in children is that it sets the child up for a lifetime of poor oral health," says Dr. Kelley Mingus, a dentist from Bend, Oregon. "Tooth decay at a young age can also cause a lot of problems with the alignment of their adult teeth."
But a new study has found an even bigger risk to poor oral hygiene. The study was conducted by the University of Helsinki in Finland and began in 1980 on 755 child subjects ages 6, 9 and 12. The researchers initially conducted oral examinations on the children and then followed them throughout their childhood, teen and adult years, measuring things like periodontal pockets, cavities, gum disease and periodontal infections. The culmination of the study was in 2007, when researchers conducted carotid artery intima-media exams, measuring the arteries of the then 33-, 36- and 39-year-old subjects. What they found was that the subjects who developed periodontal disease during childhood had a higher risk of developing another serious condition – carotid atherosclerosis - as adults.
Carotid atherosclerosis is a narrowing of the blood vessels in the neck that deliver the blood from the heart to the brain. Persons with carotid atherosclerosis are at a higher risk of blood clots and stroke.
"I think if more parents knew that their child would someday be at an elevated risk of stroke as early as in their late 20s, they would be completely panicked," says Mingus. "But periodontal disease is that serious."
Mingus is careful to point out that just because a child has had periodontal disease does not guarantee carotid atherosclerosis will develop, but it should be significant encouragement to care for children’s oral hygiene.
"If you are struggling to get your children to care for their teeth, speak to your dentist," he says. "We have tips and tricks to help kids overcome some of their objections to oral health care."