Winning the gold takes everything. Many Olympians spend decades training for their event to earn the chance to stand above the rest on the podium. While staying in top physical peak is a big priority, is oral health important? Based on the 2012 Olympics, having a healthy smile is a bigger factor than most realize.
According to a new study led by Professor Ian Needleman at University College London Eastman Dental Institute, more than half of Olympians had poor oral health, and many found it inhibited their performance. Researchers recruited 302 athletes to the dental clinic in the London 2012 athletes’ village during the two-week international event. Those surveyed were from the Americas, Africa and Europe, and represented more than 25 different sports, including track, boxing and hockey. The results were pretty shocking.
Fifty-five percent of the athletes involved showed signs of tooth decay. Cavities, rotting and the beginning of caries were all evident. Of that demographic, 41 percent of the damage was irreversible. More than three-fourths of the individuals suffered from gingivitis, which is the early stage of gum disease. The statistic is dramatically higher than people their same age – around 70 percent, based on the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
“Oral health is important for wellbeing and successful elite sporting performance,” explained Professor Needleman. “It is amazing that many professional athletes – people who dedicate a huge amount of time and energy to honing their physical abilities – do not have sufficient support for their oral health needs, even though this negatively impacts their training and performance.”
While almost one in five athletes said their training or performance was negatively impacted by oral health, nearly two-thirds said their poor dental care was affecting their quality of life.
It is clear that oral health and athletic performance are bound together. Gum disease and cavities often trigger pain and inflammation, which may reduce the quality of life and self-confidence of a competitor and therefore lower his or her ability to rise to the occasion. Stunningly, the researchers said that the dental hygiene of the world-class athletes resembled that of people living in disadvantaged populations. Nearly half of the 2012 London competitors said they hadn’t been to the dentist in more than a year.
“Oral health assessment should be part of every athlete’s routine medical care,” Professor Needleman elaborated. “If we are going to help them optimize their level of performance we need to concentrate on oral health promotion and disease prevention strategies to facilitate the health and wellbeing of all our elite athletes.”
So, why might they neglect their oral care?
Researchers in previous studies speculate that the constant carbohydrate intake and reduced immune system through intensive training negatively impacts oral health. Exercise falls under the old adage, “too much of a good thing can be bad.” When working out more than 90 minutes each day on a rigorous routine, virus and infections may gain a foothold as white blood cells and antibodies are temporarily down or busy working on another part of the body.
Without a doubt, the oral health of these athletes was far below par, but look at it through the opposite end of the telescope. Fixing and avoiding oral hygiene problems only has the power to boost a player’s performance. They are already at the top of their game, yet there is always room to grow.
Spend more time brushing – it is recommended that you brush your teeth for two minutes during each session. Floss daily, as having a healthy smile may help open up untapped potential.
It also provides a valuable takeaway for a broader range of aspiring athletes and high-endurance performers: The cleaner your mouth, the better you will play – that’s not even a dentist’s advice, that’s coming straight from the mouth of the Olympians.