A recent report in Time Magazine indicated that more than 25% of American adults have untreated tooth decay. 91% of Americans have one or more teeth, that have been treated for decay or needs to be. Despite being preventable, dental decay is four times more common than asthma in teens and is the most common chronic disease among kids and adolescents.
The dental terminology for tooth decay is caries. Caries, which comes from the Latin word for "rotten," is caused mostly by bacteria reacting with sugar in the mouth. The bacteria produce acid that leaches minerals from the teeth and weakens them. Thus, it is an infectious disease and stays with people for life. There is also a genetic susceptibility to developing tooth decay.
Fluoride helps slow the loss of minerals from teeth and greatly reduces rates of dental caries. In the 1940's, fluoride was added to the public water system and the rate of tooth decay diminished significantly. However, due to the recent popularity of bottled water, which often is NOT fluoridated, there has been a rise in cavities among kids.
Dentists had hoped a sweetener called xylitol might reduce the risk for tooth decay but a large study recently found it ineffective.
Tooth decay and complete tooth loss have dropped among Americans since the 1960's, but there is still room for improvement in our oral health. Things that can be done to help prevent dental decay include brushing twice per day with a fluoridated toothpaste, flossing, eating a healthy diet and limiting sugary snacks, dental sealants, drinking fluoridated water, and having regular dental check-ups.