Summer 2012

Size Effect

Obesity in children can lead to dental problems

By Gail Bambrick

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The eruption of permanent teeth in the jaw (in yellow) can be seen in this X-ray of a child’s skull. Photo: Photo Researchers, Inc.

A new Tufts study finds that obese children get their permanent teeth earlier than kids who are not overweight—research that has important implications for the initiation and frequency of pediatric dental care.

The early eruption of permanent teeth increases the risk for cavities, malocclusion and crowding, as well as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, says Aviva Must, the Morton A. Madoff Professor and chair of public health and community medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, who was the principal investigator on the study.

The research, published in February in the journal Obesity, “indicates the need for comprehensive and frequent oral evaluations in obese children to avoid the health pitfalls that accompany early eruption of permanent teeth,” says Must, N87, N92, who coauthored the study with colleagues at Tufts, the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center and HarvestPlus International Food Policy Research Institute.

The study compared the timing of tooth eruption in obese and nonobese children. The researchers analyzed data on 5,838 children, ages 5 to 14, collected as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2001 and 2006. The NHANES survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, assesses the health and nutritional status of Americans.

They found that obese children, on average, had 1.44 more permanent teeth at any age than nonobese children. Age does figure in, Must says, with the greatest number of permanent teeth seen at age 10, when the obese children had an average of three more teeth than their nonobese peers.

“All children are more susceptible to cavities when their first permanent teeth come in, because these are not fully mineralized,” says Stanley Alexander, D75A, professor and chair of pediatric dentistry at Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

Weight is not the only factor that can affect children’s tooth eruption, Alexander says. Sociological, lifestyle and genetic factors also play a role.

Roughly 12.5 million Americans ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the CDC. These latest findings also contribute to evidence linking obesity to other aspects of accelerated growth, says Must, noting that obese children are taller before puberty than their peers, and they become sexually mature at an earlier age.

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