Study reveals why athletes have poor dental health

The sports and energy drinks and gels that athletes use to fuel their workouts may also be damaging their teeth according to a new study by researchers at UCL

Despite reporting positive oral health-related habits, athletes have substantial amounts of oral disease.

They are however, willing to consider behaviour change in order to improve their oral health.

University College London researchers looked into why so many high-level competitors suffer so many dental problems.

About half of elite UK athletes have signs of tooth decay compared to one-third of adults the same age in the general population.

Bad teeth, healthy lifestyle

The UCL team surveyed 352 elite and professional athletes about how often they brushed and flossed; how much sugar they consumed; whether they smoked; if they chewed gum; as well as the last time they visited a dentist.

The athletes represented 11 different sports (including swimming, cycling, soccer, rowing, hockey and sailing), and 256 of them were training for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Although they practiced better oral hygiene than the average person (94% brushed twice a day, and 44% flossed regularly), and they were less likely to smoke and more likely to follow a healthy diet, the researchers reported that the athletes had a ‘substantial’ amount of dental problems.

Almost half (49.1%) had untreated tooth decay, and almost a third (32%) reported that their oral health had a negative impact on their training and performance.

Researchers attributed the results on sugary supplements: 87% of them sipped sports drinks; 70% used energy gels; and 59% chewed nutrition bars.

Sugar in energy products

‘The sugar in these products increases the risk of tooth decay and the acidity of them increases the risk of erosion,’ said lead researcher, Dr Julie Gallagher from the UCL Eastman Dental Institute Centre for Oral Health and Performance.

‘This could be contributing to the high levels of tooth decay and acid erosion we saw during the dental check-ups.’

‘We found that a majority of the athletes in our survey have good oral hygiene habits in as much as they brush twice a day, visit the dentist regularly, don’t smoke and have a healthy general diet.

‘However, they use sports drinks, energy gels and bars frequently during training and competition, and the sugar in these products increases the risk of tooth decay and the acidity of them increases the risk of erosion.

‘This could be contributing to the high levels of tooth decay we saw during the dental check ups.’

Encouragingly, the surveyed athletes said they would consider adopting even better oral hygiene habits to tackle this and an intervention study has already been piloted.

Dr Gallagher added: ‘Athletes were willing to consider behaviour change related to daily plaque removal, increased fluoride availability and regular dental visits to improve oral health.

‘We subsequently asked some of them and support team members to help us design an oral health intervention study, based on contemporary behaviour change theory and we will publish the results soon.’


Eastman Dental Institute


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