When evaluating the most common health conditions in the United States, many people tend to separate oral and overall health conditions. Therefore, tooth decay rarely appears on the list of most common health conditions. Unfortunately, however, it is one of the most commonly occurring health problems and some sources even say that it is the most common health problem among Americans.
This is supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) which notes that a whopping 92% of Americans ages 20-64 have or have had at least one dental cavity affecting their permanent teeth. Furthermore, the average American adult has 3.28 decayed or missing teeth, as well as an average of 13.65 decayed surfaces in their mouth.
With such an unfortunately high percentage of people affected by tooth decay, we must ask ourselves why. Although there are numerous answers to the question of why tooth decay rates are so high, one particular reason pertains to a misunderstanding of how cavities form. Cavity formation occurs when multiple cavity-causing factors are present at once. Here are the top three causes of cavities:
Dental plaque is a colorless film that resides on your tooth enamel. When you eat or drink, substances can accumulate within the dental plaque. Not only that, but bacteria also reside in dental plaque so they can feast upon the food particles trapped there. Plaque can easily be removed while brushing or flossing, however it can also accumulate in places that are hard to reach. Over time, plaque that is not removed will harden into tartar and can only be removed by a dentist. Areas that contain more plaque are usually where dental cavities form.
However, it is not necessarily plaque alone that causes cavities, but what plaque contains. As mentioned earlier, bacteria reside in plaque. These bacteria are known as streptococcus mutans and are the bacteria responsible for tooth decay. They occur naturally in the mouth and produce an acidic waste product. In a healthy mouth, saliva is responsible for managing acid concentrations so that the teeth are not permanently damaged. In cases where there is increased bacterial populations or decreased saliva production, however, the acids from bacteria can cause irreversible damage to the enamel and dentin layers.
Again, sugars alone don’t cause cavities. Since they are the main food source of streptococcus mutans, however, they are definitely a contributing factor to cavity formation. The consumption of sugary foods and beverages means that more sugar is trapped in the plaque, which leads to more sugar being consumed by bacteria. This causes more waste production, which raises the acidity levels in that area. Additionally, a large food source means the bacteria will multiply, which will continue to raise acidity in that area. Unfortunately, the final result is a dental cavity.
Ultimately, plaque, bacteria, and sugars are all contributing factors to cavity formation. Although each one does not necessarily pose a threat individually, they become harmful when they are all present. This is because excess plaque accumulation supports large amounts of bacteria that are then fed by large amounts of sugar, which results in a high concentration of acid that damages the teeth. Therefore, decreasing plaque and bacteria by regular brushing and flossing, as well as controlling sugar intake are important steps to take to decrease the risk of cavity formation.