You wouldn’t think that competitive athletes, both amateurs and professionals, would have many oral health issues. They’re usually fit, healthy, active and non-smoking individuals with healthy diets. Not only that, a whopping 94% of elite athletes brush their teeth twice daily as opposed to the rest of us. (According to Australia’s oral health tracker, only around 50% of Australians brush their teeth twice a day. Worse still, only 5% of us flossed daily.)
Alarming rates of oral disease among athletes
However, in a study published recently by English dental researchers from University College London, it was discovered that elite athletes have significantly higher rates of oral disease than everyone else.
As hard as that is to believe, the UCL study was comprehensive and surveyed 352 Olympic and professional athletes from a wide range of sports including athletics, swimming, cycling, rugby league, soccer, hockey, rowing and sailing. All athletes in the study were given oral health checkups that included assessments for tooth decay, gum disease and tooth erosion. They were also surveyed about their oral care and hygiene habits.
Athletes scored high on oral health habits
As far as oral habits go, elite athletes scored impressive results compared to the rest of the population. On top of the 94% who brushed twice daily, 44% flossed or practiced interdental cleaning daily.
The same athletes scored low in their oral health check up
But now for the bad news! Despite all their commendable efforts to maintain their oral health, top athletes experienced alarming rates of oral disease. In the English study, researchers found that 49.1% had tooth decay that was untreated, and of those, nearly all had gum inflammation. When interviewed, 32% stated that their oral health issues had a negative effect on their performance and training.
The paradox explained by UCL researchers
Professor Ian Needlemen, who led the UCL study, reported that there were two main factors that contributed to this grim picture of oral health among the athletes. The first, was their regular use of sports drinks, energy bars and energy gels, all of which consist of sweetened refined carbohydrates. These types of foods and drinks are sticky and contribute greatly to tooth decay and erosion.
In addition, during extended periods of intensive physical activity, the athletes experienced dehydration and a dry mouth. Without adequate hydration, the acidic food and drink residue in their mouths was not being rinsed out by enough saliva.
All elite athletes need to adopt better oral health habits
In conclusion, one of the lead UCL researchers, Dr Julie Gallagher, has recommended that all elite athletes should rethink their intake of energy foods and beverages, adopt more thorough oral health habits and visit their dentist more often.
Julie Gallagher, Paul Ashley, Aviva Petrie & Ian Needleman. Oral health-related behaviours reported by elite and professional athletes. British Dental Journal, 2019 DOI: 10.1038/s41415-019-0617-8