As a Newberg dentist who treats children, Dr. Jennifer McLeod strives to help parents understand the importance of early dental care for kids. Frequent trips to the dentist’s office from a young age can significantly lower a child’s risk of developing a variety of chronic oral health issues such as tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease. Regular dental care from a young age helps to build a foundation on which a child can enjoy a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums. However, the findings of a new study may actually call into question this long held belief.
Preventive care provided by dentists for kids prior to the age of 2 enrolled in Medicaid in Alabama may lead to more long-term care, reports the findings of a University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health study. Researchers have linked early preventative dental care with more frequent subsequent treatment for tooth decay, an increased number of visits, and increased spending on dental care.
The results of this study were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Uncertainty Surrounding Early Care
While the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry both recommend that parents take their kids to see a dentist soon after their teeth start to emerge, limited evidence exists about the effectiveness of early dental care and whether pediatricians – not dentists – have the ability to provide the necessary standard of care. Despite the focus on preventive dental care, cavities in kids under the age of five has been on the rise, according to researchers.
The study compared treatments for tooth decay, dental visits, and dental care spending for kids receiving preventive dental care from a dentist or pediatrician and those receiving no preventive dental care at all. Researchers examined data from Medicaid on over 19,000 children living in Alabama, 25 percent of whom received preventive dental care from a dentist prior to the age of 2.
In contrast to kids that did not receive preventive dental care at an early age, kids who did receive care from a dentist also received more frequent care in the future (20 versus 11 percent), a high number of dental visits, and a higher amount spent on yearly dental care ($168 versus $87). Preventive dental care provided by pediatricians was not significantly linked with tooth decay-related treatments or expenditures, according to researchers.
“This study highlights the need for continued careful evaluation of the evidence basis for clinical recommendations,” reported researchers from the university. “What we find is that we cannot definitively say whether early preventive dental visits reduce tooth decay with the available data.”
Researchers noted that their study suffered from certain limitations. For example, it did not measure other benefits of early preventive dental care such as improved quality of life, nor did the study take into account established health behaviors such as frequency of brushing and flossing. They also failed to note the access to fluoridated water to the kids examined in Alabama.
No matter the provider of the early dental care, researchers observed little hard evidence of the benefits of this care. The preventive care from dentists even seemed to increase tooth decay related treatments, which researchers didn’t expect. Based on the inconclusive results of this study, researchers are calling for further study into whether early preventative care can make a significant difference on a child’s long-term oral health.
Early Dental Care Still Valuable
While the results of this study were inconclusive, the data pointing to higher long-term costs and more frequent dental visits could be attributed to a number of factors not covered by the study.
An increased exposure to professional dental care increases the likelihood of dental decay being spotted by a dentist. For example, kids who don’t go to the dentist may not receive a cavity diagnosis from a pediatrician simply because the doctor isn’t as equipped to provide that kind of diagnosis as a Newberg dentist who treats children.
To say that visiting the dentist more often leads to more cavities makes far less sense than saying visiting the dentist more frequently increases the likelihood of an existing cavity being discovered.
While more studies examine the role early dental care can play in protecting a child’s long-term oral health, it still makes sense for parents to error on the side of caution and start their child’s oral care at a young age.