Professor Wagner Marcenes led of team of researchers as part of the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study. It listed untreated tooth decay, or cavities, as the most common of all 291 major diseases and injuries.
Marcenes is with the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London.
Tooth decay, or cavities in permanent teeth, is also known as carries.
In fact, the study says the “largest increases in the burden of oral conditions” were in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. Marcenes was not surprised at the study’s results.
He said that tooth decay is rising sharply in Africa because developing countries are becoming more like Western nations in some ways.
“It is likely to be related to a change in diet. Our industrialized diet leads to chronic disease, which includes carries. And that may be the main explanation.”
The diets of developed nations are rich in sugar, a leading culprit in oral health problems. Marcenes says prior to the 19th Century, people had few cavities because sugar was not readily available. It’s also a major contributor to obesity.
He said, “The fluoridation of the water is a highly important issue, and yes, it came from research in America. It has contributed enormously to that reduction in carries.”
Oral health problems, Marcenes said, have a major negative effect on a person’s quality of life. For one, they make eating difficult. Second, people may change what they eat and opt for softer foods, such as those with more fat. However, the biggest issue, he found, is both social and psychological.
“We have very strong evidence in the literature that the mouth plays a big role on socialization. People feel embarrassed about having bad teeth. Then they tend to smile less. They tend to communicate less. And the familiar thing is to see someone laughing with their hand in front of the mouth because they don’t want people to see.”
He hopes African and Asian nations will see the health problems of the West and not follow their dietary example. He’s calling for an “urgent, organized, social response” to the widespread lack of oral health.