Study Of Minority NYC Youth Finds Unequal Burden Of Poor Dental Health

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Hispanic youth report better dental health habits than their non-Hispanic peers, according to a new study of low-income New York City adolescents.

The study provides added insight into the oral health of the diverse Hispanic community in America, said study co-author Luisa Borrell, a dentist and epidemiologist, who is also an assistant professor of epidemiology with Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

The study appears in the November issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

The Columbia University study is a snapshot of more than 3,200 children ages 12 to 16, who live in the northern Manhattan communities of Central Harlem and Washington Heights/Inwood.

Ninety-four percent of the youth were Hispanic or black. More then 2,300 youth identified themselves as Hispanic and the greatest number of the Hispanic adolescents was of Dominican descent, Borrell said.

"The study provides important information on the oral health for a Hispanic subgroup other than Mexican Americans, from whom we have recent national data. Studies focusing on other Hispanic subgroups will help us understand the difference within the Hispanic population and will underscore the need to examine health outcomes for each Hispanic subgroup whenever the data is available," Borrell said.

In most national studies of children's oral health, the data on Hispanics largely reflects Mexican-American youth.

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The study relied on questionnaires filled out by the youth and clinical exams performed during each child's visit to a school-based dental clinic. Researchers found cavities in 52 percent of the Hispanic participants and 54 percent of the black youth.

"This study may help us define the problem. We still have a lot to learn about what factors are protective for the oral health of these kids, and what will work to improve that health," Borrell said.

Overall, the dental health and health promoting habits of the Hispanic children were better than the other participants in the study were.

Ninety-four percent of Hispanic youths reported that they brush daily compared with 83 percent of blacks and 85 percent of the other children in the study. Hispanic youths were also more likely to floss.

Many more Hispanic youths reported having had a dental visit sometime in their lifetime. Researchers noted moderate-to-abundant plaque in 27 percent of the Hispanic adolescents, compared with 36 percent of blacks and other children in the study.

"The study's findings need to be interpreted with cautions as we did not have information on the education and income of the adolescent participants' families. Also we didn't know what proportion of these children were foreign born, which can be a protective effect for health," Borrell said.

Mario Ramos, a dentist with Pediatric Dentistry of Midland Park, in New Jersey, founded an organization to provide dental care to homeless children. Although not involved with the current study, he said the new findings are not a surprise.

"Being poor and a parent's education level are huge factors in dental health. We know that 80 percent of the dental decay in America in kids is in 20 percent of the kids," Ramos said.

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