Understanding the Oral Health Needs of Young Adults at the University of California Merced: A Pilot Study

By | June 28, 2016

I have been awarded a Hellman Fellows Faculty Fellowship is to examine young adult oral health beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, practices and access to care among young adults attending UC Merced (UCM) in general, and those from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) in particular.

This current study builds upon an exploratory study undertaken at UCM in Fall 2015.

Oral Health – it’s more important than you think
Poor oral health continues to be a serious public health problem in the United States, particularly in underserved populations. Recent research has shown that oral health plays a greater role for general health than previously thought, as periodontitis is associated with systemic diseases. Periodontitis, commonly known as gum disease, is a set of infections that damages the soft tissue around the teeth and the bones that support the teeth. Gingivitis, or inflamed gums, is the precursor to periodontitis. Symptoms of periodontitis include inflamed and recessed gums, bleeding when brushing or flossing, halitosis (bad breath), and loose teeth.

Evidence suggests that periodontal disease, rather than carries (cavities), is a major cause of tooth loss later in life.

Oral Health among UC Merced students
From Oct –Dec 2015, I carried out an exploratory study of oral health practices and beliefs among young adults at UC Merced to assess their oral health practices, and access to dental care.

The initial sample of respondents downloaded in Nov. 2015, included 801 young adults.

The majority of respondents reported brushing their teeth on the day surveyed. However, 70% of respondents reported not flossing their teeth on the day surveyed. 25% of young adults reported that their gums bled during brushing. 28% of respondents reported dental sensitivity.

The significant number of students reporting lack of self-care, bleeding gums, and dental sensitivity suggests that many young are currently at risk for, or may have mild cases of gingivitis. These students are at risk of developing periodontal diseases.

While the majority of respondents reported having dental insurance, 30% of respondents reported they had needed dental care in the last year, but could not obtain it.

The data suggest that an in-depth follow up study is needed to understand why young adults with dental insurance are not able to access care. The 2015 exploratory study shows that having dental insurance to care does not necessarily decrease oral health risk, particularly if the care is not accessed.

Why we need to study access to care among UC Merced students
The Hellman Fellowship will allow me to interview students in depth to understand why they currently cannot access care, and will also allow us to interview students about their access to care during high school.

The exploratory survey indicates that many UCM female students of childbearing age who have dental insurance may still be at risk for pregnancy complications when they decide to become pregnant due to their oral health status.

Over time, poor oral health will increase the risk of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases as UCM students enter middle-age.

Additionally, many UCM students come from low SES backgrounds, which means that they may not have had access to care during their childhood and adolescent years. As a result, continuing to engage in poor oral health self-care, and being unable to access oral health care despite dental insurance, may exacerbate already existing oral health deficits in the community.

Understanding what the barriers to access to care and self-care exist will help us understand where to best target interventions. Understanding the self-care practices and oral health care access that students had prior to enrolling in UCM will also help us understand what deficits exist in the young adult population.