Poor Oral Health Among Elite Athletes

When I think of an Olympic athlete, I imagine the picture of health.  After all, most of them have dedicated their entire life to training their bodies to compete in the ultimate challenge.  This includes extreme dedication to regular workouts and rigorous dieting.  To say I was surprised about a recent study that found that several Olympians struggle with oral health would be an understatement.  How can such elite athletes have any health issues? But sure enough, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, and reported on in a Science Daily article, found that some athletes have such poor levels of oral health that they compare with the most disadvantaged populations.  Here are the details.

The study was conducted using 302 athletes who participated in the London 2012 Olympics (25 different sports were represented).  The participants were given a systematic oral health check-up and then asked to give a personal assessment of the impact oral health had on their quality of life and athletic training and performance.   Shockingly, researchers found that 55% of participants were suffering from tooth decay, with 41% of the cases already affecting the dentine, making it irreversible.  More than 75% of the athletes showed signs of early stage gum disease, or gingivitis, while 15% had a permanent gum infection, called periodontitis.  42% stated that they were “bothered by oral health issues” with nearly one and five claiming that it was negatively affecting their performance levels.  What surprised me the most was that almost half of the participants admitted to not visiting the dentist in the previous year, while approximately 9% said they had never been to a dentist before.  For individuals who are so committed to achieving high levels of physical fitness, I find it shocking that they would neglect their oral health.  Authors of the report blame the exceptionally high levels of poor oral health among professional athletes on frequent carbohydrate intake, a reduced immune function through intensive training, and a lack of awareness about the link between oral health and overall wellness.

As I’ve mentioned in several prior blogs, education seems to be the key in most stories like this one.  More and more research points to an undeniable relationship between oral health and many chronic health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and HPV.  But while the evidence is there, millions of individuals around the world still treat dental care as an optional luxury.  Furthermore, most oral diseases are completely preventable through the establishment of a good oral hygiene routine.  Brushing your teeth twice daily, flossing regularly, and visiting your dentist twice annually is enough for most individuals to achieve and maintain peak oral health.  This story is evidence that even those who are dedicated and committed to reaching a high level of physical fitness aren’t aware of the importance of oral health.  It’s time to spread the word.  Make sure you, along with all of your loved ones, are aware of this critical issue.  Make an appointment with your dentist today!

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