Good news and some warning signs from Australia's second national dental check-up

Many Australian adults are enjoying improved oral health, but some are still missing out, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) launched today by the Hon Tony Abbott at the 32nd Australian Dental Congress in Sydney.

The report, Australia's dental generations: the National Survey of Adult Oral Health 2004-06, provides a detailed snapshot of oral health in the adult population at the beginning of the twenty-first century, drawing primarily from a 2004-06 national survey in which 14,514 Australians from 15 to 98 years of age were interviewed, and 5,505 of them dentally examined.

The report shows that members of the fluoride generation (born since 1970) had about half the level of decay that their parents' generation had developed by the time they were young adults.

'This finding provides evidence that exposure to fluoride in water and in toothpaste during childhood produced substantial benefits for oral health among Australian adults,' said Prof. Gary Slade, head of the AIHW's Dental Statistics and Research Unit based at the University of Adelaide.

The average number of teeth affected by dental decay ranged from 4.5 teeth per person in the 1970-90 generation to 24.3 teeth per person in the pre-1930 generation.

When asked to rate their own oral health, 16% of Australians rated their oral health as fair or poor. Just over 15% said they had experienced toothache in the preceding 12 months, and about 17% said that they had avoided some foods due to problems with their teeth, mouth or dentures.

Many (30%) reported avoiding dental care due to cost, and about 20% said that cost had prevented them from having recommended dental treatment.

Adults with private dental insurance and people with relatively higher levels of schooling consistently had lower levels of oral disease and they were more likely to see a dentist regularly.

The report also showed, however, that dental visits were less frequent and oral diseases were more common among the elderly and among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

The findings provide evidence that supports Australia's National Oral Health Plan which promotes broad fluoride use and places priority on three population groups: the elderly, low income and disadvantaged groups, and Indigenous Australians.

Key facts

  • People born before 1930, reached adulthood during an era when oral disease was widespread and usually treated by extraction of teeth
  • The two generations born after 1930 were more likely to retain teeth, but they also experienced high rates of decay
    The generation born since 1970 was exposed to more dental prevention than any preceding generation, particularly through fluorides in toothpaste and drinking water.
  • Over 95% of people born before 1970 had some experience of dental decay
  • About 76% of people born in the years 1970 to 1990 experienced some dental decay
  • Dental decay has been treated predominantly by fillings in recent generations and by a combination of fillings and extractions in earlier generations.
  • About 25% of Australian adults have untreated decay
  • Levels of untreated decay were more than twice as high among Indigenous Australians (57.0%) compared with non Indigenous Australians (25.1%)
  • Approximately one in five Australian adults had moderate (20.5% of people) or severe (2.4% of people) forms of gum disease
  • Three out of five adults reported having visited a dentist during the preceding 12 months
  • The majority (83%) attended a private dentist and most (91%) paid out of pocket for the visit.
  • Slightly more than half (53.1%) of adults visited a dentist at least once a year
  • The percentage of people reporting a need for dental fillings or extractions was greater in 2004-06 than in 1987-88.

17 March 2007

Further information: Prof. Gary Slade, AIHW, mob. 0407 915 851 or Prof John Spencer, AIHW 08 8303 3291

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 61 2 6244 1032.