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Poor Oral Health Adds to the Disease Burden of Alcoholics, UB Dental Researchers Show

By Lois Baker

Release Date: March 12, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Alcohol abuse, alone a detriment to health, appears to lead to periodontal disease, tooth decay and mouth sores that are potentially precancerous.

Researchers in the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, in a pilot study of the oral health of patients in alcohol rehabilitation, found that more than 80 percent of the group had moderate-to-severe gum inflammation, more than two-thirds had heavy accumulations of dental plaque and nearly 80 percent had decayed teeth. More than one-third had mouth lesions that were potentially precancerous.

When asked to rate the condition of their teeth and mouth, 85.3 percent of participants answered "fair" or "poor."

Results of the study were presented today (March 12, 2003) at the American Association of Dental Research meeting in San Antonio by Marcelo W.B. Araujo, D.D.S., research associate in the UB Department of Periodontics and Endodontics and the study's lead author.

"Persons who abuse alcohol are at high risk of having seriously deteriorated teeth, gums and compromised oral health in general," said co-author Sebastian Ciancio, D.D.S., SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and chair in the UB Department of Periodontics and Endodontics.

"This pilot study shows these members of society are in great need of interventions that help them protect their oral health. In light of the growing body of evidence showing a significant link between oral health and other serious chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, periodontal disease in this population represents a substantial public-health problem."

The study involved 24 men and 10 women who were inpatients at a rehabilitation center for alcohol abuse in Buffalo. Participants agreed to provide information on dental-hygiene habits, additional lifestyle behaviors and demographic characteristics, and to submit to a dental examination.

Araujo used the following indicators to assess participants' oral health: presence of plaque; gum inflammation; number of decayed, missing and filled teeth (called the DMF index), and number of teeth showing loss of enamel. He also examined participants' tongue, cheeks and palate for signs of mouth sores and lesions.

Results showed that 82.3 percent of the study group had moderate-to-severe gum inflammation and 70.6 percent showed a heavy accumulation of plaque. Fifteen percent of participants had missing teeth, while 41 percent of existing teeth showed signs of enamel erosion.

More than one-third of participants -- 35.3 percent -- had potentially pre-cancerous lesions in their mouths, a rate much higher than in the general population of the U.S., Araujo said. In addition, 79.4 percent of participants had at least one decayed tooth, with an average of 3.2 decayed teeth per individual.

Based on these findings, researchers are planning to conduct a larger study of oral health among alcoholics and to develop rational measures for preventing oral disease in this population.

Additional authors on the study were Kurt Dermen, Ph.D., senior research scientist in UB's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA); Gerard Connors, Ph.D., RIA director, and Dennis Lalonde, an RIA research associate.

The study was funded by the UB Center for Dental Studies, RIA and Pfizer, Inc.