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Lower Health Literacy Linked with Worse Periodontal Disease
November 14, 2012

By Nancy Volkers
InteliHealth News Service

INTELIHEALTH - People with lower oral-health literacy have more severe periodontal (gum) disease, says a study.

The study included 121 people who were referred to a periodontal disease clinic at the University of North Carolina. The researchers measured oral health literacy using a test that shows whether people recognize 30 dental-related words. The words start out easy and get more difficult. They include fluoride, halitosis, plaque and caries.

Everyone in the study also answered five true/false questions about oral health. Researchers did periodontal exams on everyone. They also collected dental history information.

People in the study were an average of 54 years old. About half were women, and about three-fourths were white.

About 82% had at least some college or post-high school technical education. Still, 33% of people in the study had low scores on the test of oral-health literacy. In this study, "low" meant that the person recognized fewer than 22 of the 30 words.

About 31% had moderate oral-health literacy. They recognized 22 to 25 of the words. The other 37% had high scores. They recognized 26 or more words.

The average score in the study was 23 out of 30 words.

Just over half the people in the study – 53% -- had severe periodontal disease. About 29% had moderate disease, and 18% had mild or no disease.

Periodontal disease was more likely to be severe among people with lower oral-health literacy. About 75% of those with low literacy and 39% of those with high literacy had severe disease.

The study found three other factors also were linked with severe periodontal disease:

  • Race: Non-whites were five times as likely as whites to have severe disease.
  • Insurance status: People without dental insurance were more than twice as likely as insured people to have severe disease.
  • Smoking: Smokers were nearly four times as likely as nonsmokers to have severe disease. The researchers did not find a link between scores on the true/false quiz and the degree of periodontal disease. People with mild, moderate or severe disease had similar scores.

The study appears in the Nov. 2 issue of the Journal of Public Health Dentistry.

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