Is the message getting through?

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A third of Americans aren't making the link between what you see here and other illnesses.
A third of Americans aren’t making the link between what you see here and other illnesses.

A new poll by Gallup in the United States has found that about one in three U.S. adults say they did not visit the dentist at some point in the past 12 months. These findings are based on interviews with 178,072 American adults conducted during 2013 and with 354,645 adults conducted during 2008 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Respondents were asked whether they had visited the dentist in the previous 12 months. Results for all years between 2008 and 2013 are similar.

Age and income appear to be key factors in the result, with only 55% of both blacks and Hispanics report visiting the dentist in the past year. Whites and Asians, in contrast, each are at about 70%, demonstrating that there is a notable racial and ethnic divide. Dental visit rates across most groups are similar to levels found in 2008, although there has been a small decline among blacks since that time.

In contrast, there are much smaller differences across age groups in reported dental behaviors. Young adults aged 18 to 29 are the least likely to have visited the dentist, but only marginally less so than those who are middle aged or older. An improved rate among seniors since 2008 is offset by a similarly sized decline among those 30 to 44.

The most pronounced differences in dental habits are those across income groups. Those who earn $120,000 or more annually in household income are about twice as likely as those who earn less than $12,000 to say they visited the dentist in the past 12 months, 82.3% vs. 42.7%, respectively. Dental visit rates have held steady since 2008 for top earners, while they have declined for all other groups, particularly for low- and middle-income households with incomes between $24,000 and $60,000 per year.

Marital status also influences dental decisions, with those who are married much more likely to report visiting the dentist annually than those who are not married. Those who are separated are the least likely to report visiting the dentist, and rates have dropped the most among this group — nearly six percentage points — since 2008.

The percentage of adults visiting a dentist in the past year varies widely across the major U.S. racial/ethnic boundaries, but the Affordable Care Act may help minimize the disparities in professional dental care among income groups. According to the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Resources Center, as many as 17 million adults could gain some form of dental coverage via the ACA over the next several years.

Regardless of income or insurance status, however, poor oral health is preventable. Health literacy, access, and motivation can all increase the likelihood of routine dental visits and help reduce the negative health outcomes associated with not visiting the dentist.

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