It is a part of the typical stereotype of the hillbilly image: a mouth full of decaying teeth or empty spaces where teeth once were.
And like many stereotypes, the image of the poor eastern Kentuckian with decaying or missing teeth is at least partially based on fact. Poor dental health has long plagued residents of Appalachia and, based on results of a new study, it seems unlikely to get much better.
The new Kentucky Health Issues Poll found more than half of Kentucky’s residents report having no dental insurance and many residents of the state seldom visit the dentist. While 70 percent of adults in the U.S. say they have visited a dentist or dental clinic within the past year, that number is just 61 percent among Kentucky adults.
The poll was funded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and conducted last fall by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. A random sample of 1,680 adults from throughout Kentucky was interviewed by phone, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky says the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
There are a number of reasons why poor dental health plagues the eastern third of Kentucky, including:
‰The lack of dental insurance. Lower-income Kentuckians struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to put a high priority on visiting the dentist regularly. While a tooth ache can be painful and decaying teeth unsightly, they are seen to be unlikely to cause more serious health problems. After all, who ever died from a tooth ache?
But a toothache can lead to more serious ailments because a toothache is often an infection, and, left untreatd, infections can and often do spread to other parts of the body, However, because many area residents do not understand how an aching tooth can lead to more serious health problems, they are more likely to spend their limited resources by visiting a medical doctor or the emergency room than a dentist.
--The lack of access to quality dental care in many rural communities. Just as there is a shortage of medical doctors in many rural communities, there also are not enough dentists in many of those same counties. Many residents have neither the resources nor the desire to drive many miles and spend the money to see a dentist.
--Poor dental hygiene. You can’t buy tooth brushes, tooth paste and dental floss with food stamps, and because of that, there are households in this region that do not have a single tube of toothpaste. The idea of brushing one’s teeth twice daily is drilled into the minds of most young children from the time they can walk and talk, but not to the children in many low-income households.
--While many people may have never heard of the term “meth mouth,” people in this region have not only heard that term, but too many of them have experienced a “meth mouth” full of decaying teeth because of abuse of methamphetamines. And with the number of illegal “meth labs” increasing at an alarming rate in this region, the problem only promises to get worse.
One would think anyone who has every witnessed someone suffering from “meth mouth” would never use methamphetamines, but apparently constant tooth aches and decaying teeth are not enough to discourage some from using meth.
--Poor diets. Let’s face it: Too many of us are overweight and eat too many sweets. While we love the sugar we consume, we don’t like the tooth decay it can cause. Until more of us learn to “eat smarter,” poor dental health will continue to be a problem in this region.