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.