America's oral health report card is better than a decade ago, according to the CDC and National Institutes of Health.

Improvements include:

—Fewer cavities in kids' and teens' permanent teeth

—Less tooth loss in older adults

—More use of dental sealants to protect kids' and teens' teeth

The findings are based on national health surveys done in 1988-1994 and 1999-2002. The results appear in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Your Guide to Dental Care

'Good News'

"The good news is that efforts to reduce and prevent cavities and dental disease are paying off. We are seeing an increase in the number of children, teens, and adults who have never had a cavity in their permanent teeth," says William Maas, DDS, MPH, in a news release. He directs the CDC's division of oral health.

"It's also very encouraging to find the dental health of children in lower-income areas improved," says Maas, crediting school programs that promote tooth brushing and dental sealants.

However, "more effort is needed to improve the oral health of low-income Americans," says Bruce Philstrom, DDS, in the news release. He is the acting director of the clinical research and health promotion division of the National Institute of Dental and Cranofacial Research.

Dental Health: Teeth Whitening

Cavities Down, Dental Sealants Up

The report shows a 15 percent drop in cavities in the permanent teeth of kids aged 6-19.

Nearly half of all kids in that age range had had a cavity (49 percent) in the earlier survey, compared with 42 percent in the later study. There was no change in cavity rates for kids' baby teeth.

The use of dental sealants rose 64 percent for kids aged 6-19 between the two surveys. Dental sealants are used to smooth over pits and fissures in teeth.

In 1999-2002, dental sealants had been used on about 32 percent of U.S. kids, compared with nearly 20 percent in the earlier study.

More Seniors Keeping Their Teeth

A quarter of adults aged 60 or older had lost all of their teeth in 1999-2002. That's down 20 percent from the earlier study, when 31 percent of adults in that age group had lost all of their teeth.

For all adults aged 20 and older, total tooth loss was most common among current smokers, those living in poverty, and those who hadn't finished high school.

Many people lose one or more teeth as they age, but not all of their teeth. Younger, wealthier, and more educated adults had more of their teeth. On average, adults aged 20 and older had kept one more tooth in the later survey than in the earlier study.

Total tooth loss was less common among Mexican-American adults than among whites and blacks. However, tooth decay was most common among Mexican-American kids aged 2-11 compared with white and black kids in both surveys.

Room for Improvement

The CDC calls for efforts to improve oral health, especially in disadvantaged groups.

"Racial/ethnic minorities, those with lower income, lower education level, and current smokers across all age groups have larger unmet needs compared with their counterparts," the report states.

The study also calls for more research on differences in tooth loss and tooth decay between Mexican-Americans and other ethnic groups.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 26, 2005; vol 54. News release, CDC.