Explaining the Increase in Children's Tooth Decay

Like many parents, Ariel Elliott, a Chicago mother of three girls, is no stranger to childhood tooth decay.

What makes her story different is the fact that her first child's dental problems began inexplicably and very early.

She said that when she first brought her daughter Avra to the dentist's office, her baby girl was not even a year old.

She soon learned that her daughter's teeth had already begun to decay, even before they had completely grown in.

Fortunately, the problem was caught early. But even now that Avra's dental prognosis has improved, Elliott remains puzzled as to exactly why tooth decay struck her daughter so early.

"I did all that I could," she said. "I fed them healthy, organic foods and brushed their teeth."

And now another of Elliott's daughters, 2-year-old Ilah, is experiencing similar difficulties.

"Just yesterday she [the dentist] filled four cavities in my 2-year-old's front teeth," Elliott said. "She nursed a lot, and basically it rotted her first four teeth."

Baby Tooth Decay on the Rise

Experiences like Elliott's may be on the rise across the country. According to the largest government study of the nation's dental health in more than 25 years, the prevalence of cavities in the baby teeth of children ages 2 to 5 rose to 28 percent between 1999 and 2004 -- up 4 percentage points from the 24 percent rate seen in from 1988 to 1994.

The incidence of tooth decay continued downward in other age groups, making the trend reversal in the youngest age group all the more unexpected.

Lead researcher Bruce Dye of the National Center of Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said tooth decay at this early age can have big implications for dental health later on in life.

"We do know from a number of studies that when children have tooth decay in their baby teeth, they tend to have decay later in their adult teeth," Dye said.

"It is very, very important for children to keep their baby teeth because they hold the space in the mouth for where the adult teeth come in. If a child prematurely loses his or her baby teeth, the space that develops can cause the adult teeth to come in crowded."

Some dental experts say the finding reflects what they have seen in their practices.

"The interesting thing about this particular study is that it states what, anecdotally, I have heard from all of my dental colleagues," said Mary Hayes, spokeswoman for the American Dental Association and a dentist in private practice in Chicago.

But dental experts say a host of factors may be at play, some of which suggest the findings carry more good news than bad.

An Increase Through Better Detection?

At least one dental expert has suggested that the increased rate of tooth decay reported in the study could be due to better screening.

Jackson Brown, associate executive director of the American Dental Association Health Policy Resource Center, said that with more kids going to the dentist more regularly, it is inevitable that a greater number of cases of tooth decay will be detected and caught early.

"I believe this increase in prevalence among 2- to 5-year-olds is not caused by untreated decay, but it was accomplished by a greater number of cavities being filled," he said.

"These children are getting more care, and that's a good thing."

Jackson adds that, particularly for children living below and near the poverty line, the increased detection of tooth decay suggests improvements in coverage.

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