A recent study by Duke University reveals that older Blacks are among those more likely to have decaying or missing teeth than whites and are also less likely to visit the dentist for checkups.

The study evaluated the frequency and number of decayed, missing and filled teeth among more than 4,300 adults aged 60 and older based on dental and health examinations and interviews collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2004. Approximately 61 percent of the individuals included in the study were non-Hispanic white, 17 percent non-Hispanic Black and 21 percent Mexican-American.

Blacks had an average of three to four more missing teeth than whites and about four more missing teeth than Mexican-Americans. Mexican-Americans had the highest number of decayed teeth. However, both Blacks and Mexican-Americans were less likely to have lost all of their teeth when compared with white populations.

“Oral health disparities are persistent across racial and ethnic groups for older Americans despite the fact that differences between groups typically diminish when socioeconomic, health-related and behavioral factors are considered in the models,” said Dr. Bei Wu, who conducted the study.

Factors such as increased age, lower levels of education and income, smoking and diabetes were likely to be associated with having a higher number of missing teeth. Individuals who retained more natural teeth were more likely to be married, engage in moderate or vigorous physical activity and frequently attend dental checkups.

The study concluded that regular dental visits and healthier behavior, such as not smoking, less alcohol use and more physical activity, may contribute to improved oral health for the elderly.

As the nation continues to see a shift toward an older population with the aging of baby boomers, dental researchers are calling on policy makers, public health officials and health care providers to better understand how social factors and medical conditions may contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in oral health.

“These disparities could reflect a historical lack of access to, or knowledge of, dental care among ethnic minorities, lifetime dietary habits, lifetime prevalence of negative health behaviors and differences in oral health beliefs,” Bei said.