Whilst the nation is gripped by the excitement of the Rio 2016 Olympics, the focus is very much on sporting success. As the medal haul creeps up, it's easy to see the hours, days and weeks that our athletes put in to their training. Their hard work and dedication is clear to see, and they seem to be in tip-top condition. However, research carried out following the London 2012 Olympics and other major sporting competitions has found that oral health is often an area in which our sporting stars are falling down.
Research following the London 2012 Olympics produced some concerning statistics. The study (footnote 1) reported that over half of the athletes who took part were suffering from tooth decay. Over 75% were showing early signs of gum disease, and 15% had symptoms of gum infection (periodontitis).
More recent research (footnote 2) similarly found that those that take part in regular sport have a much higher risk of suffering with oral health problems that non-athletes. The study took into account the number of cavities found in those who took part in regular sport, compared to the number in those who were less active. It was found that the athletes had a higher rate of acid in their mouths, which created a higher risk of tooth decay. The research argued that it was the higher carbohydrate consumption linked to sports that caused the acidity to be higher. Sports drinks and associated products such as energy gels contributed towards this change in acid levels.
Indeed it seems to be the energy products and supplements required to maintain the training level needed to achieve success at such a high level that are risky to oral health. When training regimes are as gruelling as those our athletes take part in, a high consumption of sugary and energy drinks is needed. However, the sugar in these drinks reacts with the bacteria in plaque causing acids to be formed. These acids break down the tooth enamel, causing cavities to form. This can in the shorter term lead to fillings being needed, but could eventually also cause teeth to be lost.
It has recently been highlighted that, as our Olympic stars are presented as role models to our children, we may see even higher numbers of children looking towards energy drinks with a high sugar content as part of their every day diet. This is indeed a worry given the high number of children who already regularly consume such drinks.
So what can we do? Advice from the Oral Health Foundation is to really keep an eye on what is being consumed. Place a limit on the number of sugary drinks children reach for. Use of a straw helps to reduce the contact time between the drink and teeth, which can reduce the risk. However, going back to basics is also key: brush twice a day for two minutes using a fluoride toothpaste. Look to drink water instead of sugary drinks as often as possible, and choose options such as sugar free chewing gum, as well as aiming to reduce sugary food and drink overall in your diet. Keep up with your regular dental appointments to keep an eye on your teeth and recognise and concerning signs early on.
For more information, visit the Oral Health Foundation.