More than half of African American men have untreated dental problems, putting them at greater risk than all other Americans of contracting maladies that lead to tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancer, according to a report released yesterday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies' Health Policy Institute.
"African American men . . . have the lowest survival rate of any group" once cancerous lesions are detected, the report said. The report also underscored the social consequences of having bad teeth.
"In this society, your appearance and ability to communicate matter greatly in getting and keeping a job," said Eddie N. Williams, the Joint Center's president. "Oral disease and untreated dental problems rob you of both."
The Joint Center report, which drew on a range of statistics from the federal government and other sources, said 51 percent of African American men have untreated dental problems, compared with 28 percent of white men.
"The Joint Center notes that African American males are a particularly neglected group, particularly those living on low incomes," Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said at a morning news conference at the center. "We know that men generally . . . seek fewer health services than do females and that African American males face substantial challenges accessing health care."
Another speaker, Eric Williams, a player for the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers, said he suffered from poor self-esteem while growing up because of bad teeth that his mother could not afford to fix. Williams started the Believe in Me Foundation, which helps needy people pay for dental care.
Black children nationwide share Williams's pain, said Shelly Gehshan, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "You can do your homework, but you are still going to get cavities," she said. "There is not a clearer class marker in the world than poor teeth."
The Joint Center report cited studies of African American adults in Harlem that showed that 46 percent of black senior citizens were edentulous, or lacking teeth, compared with 22 percent of Latinos. The average time since an African American last visited a dentist was nearly four years, compared with 38 months for Latinos.
Although African Americans are more likely to have some teeth than white people, they are far less likely to have a full set of teeth, the report said. The proportion of black men missing teeth is 1.5 times greater than of white men.
The Joint Center report recommended several remedies. They included developing federal, state and local standards for accessing dental care for at-risk populations; loan repayment options for dentists in nonwhite communities; and a requirement by commercial insurers and Medicaid to include an annual visit to the dentist as part of their health plans.