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Books are good for your… teeth?

A recent study based on SHARE data examines potential links between childhood socioeconomic circumstances and dental health in later life.


(October 2017) What might the number of books you have as a child and the number of teeth at age 50 have in common? A lot, according to Stefan Listl and his colleagues. In a recent study, the researchers analyzed the association between socioeconomic conditions in childhood and dental health in later life.

Studying chronic diseases over the entire life-course
Dental diseases are among the most common chronic diseases worldwide. However, little information exists on how dental diseases might be prevented early on. To fill this gap, Listl et al. followed a recent trend in the study of chronic diseases: examining the entire life-course in order to identify potential intervention points in early life for improving oral health later on.  

Using data from the fifth wave of SHARE
To do so, the researchers used data from the fifth wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), comprising information on 41,560 respondents aged 50 years and older  from 14 European countries  and Israel. SHARE Wave 5 included, for the first time, information on the respondents’ number of teeth and a questionnaire focusing on childhood events. Thus, the fifth wave of SHARE provided unique data on life history that was necessary for the analysis.

Childhood conditions influence dental health in later life
The results show: the socioeconomic background during childhood is indeed associated with tooth retention at an older age. A long-lasting relationship between childhood living conditions and oral health throughout the life-course could be demonstrated. In the study, the number of natural teeth at age 50 and over was associated with different measures for the socioeconomic conditions during childhood: the financial situation, the number of books, and the number of rooms per person in the household. Poor or unstable financial conditions had a negative impact on the number of remaining natural teeth by age 50 and older. Limited capacity to afford dental care or constraints on family life and diet could be possible explanatory factors. Yet, there was also a significant association between the number of natural teeth and the number of books and rooms in the household during childhood. A scholarly culture might contribute positively to the formation of health attitudes and health behaviors, as the authors point out. These findings could be confirmed even after controlling for current determinants of oral health. However, dental attendance at age 50 and over had the most explanatory power for the number of natural teeth at older age.

Public health should target early-life circumstances
The authors conclude by highlighting the results as important information for health policymakers as they help to better understand the benefits of promoting adequate early-life conditions on long-term tooth retention and, thus, on the well-being of older populations: public health interventions focusing on early-life circumstances are important for maintaining good oral health throughout the entire life course.

Study by S. Listl et al. (2017). Childhood socioeconomic conditions and teeth in older adulthood: Evidence from SHARE Wave 5. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology (online first). DOI: 10.1111/cdoe.12332