Age and race may impact frequency of dentist appointments
NEW YORK, U.S./HONOLULU, U.S.: Good oral health is increasingly recognized as an essential part of healthy aging. It is closely related to overall health status and quality of life, and regular dental checkups can prevent oral diseases and help maintain oral health. However, regularly seeing a dentist is a challenge for many Americans, especially older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrant populations, new research suggests.
The study, which was led by scientists at the New York University (NYU) Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, found that visits to the dentist drop significantly after adults turn 80 years old. It also highlighted disparities in dental visits for U.S. adults by race and country of birth, finding that immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to access care. Roadblocks to dental care include lack of access to quality dental care, little awareness of the importance of oral health, racial discrimination, language barriers and absence of dental insurance coverage. Medicare does not cover most dental care and only 12% of Medicare beneficiaries report having at least some dental insurance from another source.
These findings were obtained through an examination of how often people see a dentist as they age, focusing on U.S. adults 51 years and older and exploring variations by race and country of birth. A total of 20,488 study participants of different races and ethnicities, including 17,661 U.S.-born and 2,827 foreign-born individuals, were investigated. Seventy percent of adults had visited a dentist in the past two years, but this rate decreased significantly from around age 80. U.S.-born adults of all races and ethnicities were more likely to see a dentist (71%) than immigrants were (62%). The gap in care between U.S.-born adults and immigrants shrank as people aged, suggesting that age and acculturation may play a role in decreasing oral health disparities over time. The researchers also found that black and Hispanic adults had lower rates of service utilization than did white adults and that, while the rates of service utilization decreased with age for all groups, the rates of decline for white adults were slower than others.
“Our study went beyond prior research by confirming that racial and ethnic disparities were substantial and persistent as people became older, regardless of their birthplace and while adjusting for a wide range of factors. This finding is alarming as it indicates that some unmeasured factors beyond the scope of this study, such as oral health literacy, perception of need, barriers to access, and dissatisfaction with dental care, could play important roles in explaining the disparities in dental care as people age,” explained senior author Prof. Bei Wu from the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing.
The study, titled “Racial/ethnic disparities in dental service utilization for foreign-born and U.S.-born middle-aged and older adults,” was published online on July 4, 2019, in Research on Aging, ahead of inclusion in an issue.