Dental Disease in Native American Communities

A recent study has underscored the fact that poor oral health is one of the most serious problems facing the nation’s Native American population.

Oral health researchers from the University of Colorado in Denver examined some 135 adults and 157 children at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Among the adults, they discovered that 97% had at least one decayed tooth. In the children that number was at 84%.

Moreover, the average number of decayed or filled teeth among adults was 10. Half of the adults were missing at least one tooth and 10% had no more than 10 teeth. Two-thirds had some degree of periodontal disease and 3.6% were found to have precancerous lesions.

These numbers were received with some alarm by Native American health advocates across the country. While it’s no secret that Native American populations suffer from poor oral health, the severity of the problem at Pine Ridge is nevertheless shocking.

The last national study of Native American oral health was conducted in 1999 and highlighted startling trends among the population. For instance, almost 80% of Native American children under five years old had experienced a dental cavity. And only 25% of the youth population had received an annual dental checkup.

These numbers, however, are now over a decade old and quickly becoming obsolete. While the Pine Ridge study only looked at one particular reservation, the timely data it provided presents a frightening scenario for the entire Native American population.

The authors of the Pine Ridge study speculate that there are a number of factors contributing to poor oral health on the reservation. First, many people living in Pine Ridge subsist on a high-fat, high-sugar diet. Additionally, tobacco use is common, even among young people.

But more importantly, there are a number of structural barriers preventing those living in Pine Ridge from receiving adequate oral care. In a reservation spanning 3,000 square miles there are only nine dentists and three Indian Health Service dental clinics. Moreover, over half of Pine Ridge population lives below the poverty line, making the effort to afford dental care nearly impossible.

These problems can easily be extrapolated beyond this particular area too. According to the 2010 Census, American Indians and Alaskan Natives comprise around 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population (roughly 5.2 million individuals). 28% of this population lives in poverty and 29% lacks health insurance. Many still live in rural counties or in areas with scattered populations. These facts suggest that the structural barriers to oral health present at Pine Ridge are not unique, but common to many American Indian communities.

While Native American oral health is an issue that won’t be easily solved, we can all do our part by remaining informed and concerned citizens. Keep your community smiling by staying up-to-date with oral health issues and supporting local oral health initiatives.