Vail Dental Health: After long decline, tooth decay on the rise |

Vail Dental Health: After long decline, tooth decay on the rise

Dr. Jim Harding
Special to the Vail Daily

VAIL, Colorado –When today’s baby boomers were children there was very little in the way of preventative dentistry. Then, it was not uncommon for children to have a dozen or more teeth with decay that required fillings. And this initial decay would lead to a lifetime of dental care for a tooth, with costs ranging into the thousands.

With the introduction of fluoride-treated water and other advancements, dental decay began to decline in all ages and demographics, and by the mid-1990s decay had reached an all-time low. Dentists were proud of this success story and there was even talk of eliminating decay altogether.

But according to a recent study by the American Dental Association, dental decay is making a comeback, especially in young children. According to this study, 28 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 now have dental decay and children between the ages of 6 and 19 have a greater than 50 percent likelihood of having decay.

This problem could be the result of many factors including better cavity detection, less consumption of tap water and inadequate oral hygiene practices. But the factor that deserves the closest scrutiny may be poor nutrition.

Before we examine the role of nutrition, it is important to understand how a cavity develops. Bacteria, which are always present in our mouths, convert foods – especially sugar and starch – into acids. These acids form the sticky dental plaque that will attack and dissolve the dental enamel. Repeated exposure to this acidic substance can cause a dental cavity. That’s why it is vitally important to brush and floss regularly.

So how is the modern American diet advancing tooth decay?

According to the Journal of Pediatrics, kids today consume two times more soda than milk. In fact, the average American child consumes approximately two, 12-ounce soft drinks per day. This represents 20 teaspoons of sugar or more. And the problem can be even worse with certain sports drinks, fruit juices or so called energy drinks.

Drinking soda daily can increase the incidence of decay by a whopping 179 percent. The enamel in children between the ages of 8 and 17 is also not fully developed so they are at the greatest risk of decay, especially with these sugar-rich diets.

As we age these statistics do not get much better. The average American adolescent consumes at least 11 percent of their calories from processed sugars. And the average adult takes in 155 pounds of processed sugar each year. This form of sugar is a poor nutrient.

Only sugar in the form of complex carbohydrates like bread and vegetables is considered healthy. Our diets simply have too much sugar in them and when combined with inadequate oral hygiene, it makes complete sense why decay rates are on the way back up.

As a dentist and a parent, I understand it is not practical to think our children will never consume refined sugars. But the old adage about fruits and vegetables is still very important and we should focus instead on increasing the amount of raw and unprocessed foods our children eat.

There should be almost no allowance for soft drinks and energy drinks. Sports drinks should be reserved for use when competing or training in athletics and then only used in place of water when absolutely necessary. Additionally, our children should be taught proper oral hygiene techniques by their dental professional and then these practices should be reinforced at home.

Dental decay, second only to the common cold in its prevalence, can be controlled by understanding how it forms and how to keep it at a minimum. Decay has no socio-economic, racial or age boundaries and is unfortunately going to be a factor in the modern world if we do not begin to curb our dependence on processed sugars.

In my professional opinion, zero-decay is still possible, and we should still set it as goal with all children. Then as our children become adults, they will have fewer dental issues and less need for care outside of routine dental check-ups and cleanings.

The Harding Dental Center is located in Avon and offers a full continuum of dental care from preventative and cosmetic to complex restorations. Harding is on the teaching staff at The Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies and is a preferred medical provider to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams. He can be reached at or 970-845-9980.

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