Study: You may not need to see the dentist twice a year

SEATTLE -- Many dentists recommend semiannual visits to prevent tooth decay and gum disease, but a recent study suggests some adults could have their teeth examined just once a year.

Nearly half of U.S. adults over 30 suffer from gum disease, a primary cause of tooth loss. Still, researchers from the University Of Michigan Dental School say people should analyze their own risk before scheduling dental visits every six months.

Researchers analyzed 16 years of insurance claims for more than 5,000 adults, comparing those who went to the dentist just once a year to those who went twice a year. The study found that patients who did not smoke, have diabetes or have genetic risk factors were no more likely to develop dental problems whether they went to the dentist once or twice a year.

But for those with multiple risk factors, researchers say two preventative annual visits may not be enough to reduce tooth loss.

Dr. Philippe P. Hujoel, a professor of Oral Health Sciences at the University of Washington, agrees that the number of times a patient should see the dentist depends on risk factors, but adds that patients who consume a lot of refined sugar or carbonated drinks are also more likely to develop cavities and should see a dentist more often.

"The key is to assess your own behavior," Hujoel says. "The less you indulge in behaviors that put your teeth at risk the less you need to see a dentist."

Dr. Eve Rutherford, chair of Washington Dental Service Foundation and a local dentist practicing in Snohomish, says there are some patients with exceptionally healthy teeth that she recommends only come in once a year. But, she says they are by far the minority.

"Even people who are considered low-risk should communicate with their dentist to see if there is anything in their health history that means they should be going in semiannually," she says.

Rutherford says she worries patients who don't make semiannual visits to their doctor are less likely to share important information about their health.

"If you aren't seeing patients two times a year then you won't get all the data you need and will be shortchanging the patient on their care," Rutherford says. "I think all dental providers struggle with how much time to spend with a patient to have a holistic view of their health."

Rutherford says many patients forget their dental health can reveal symptoms of their overall health. She says one of her family members discovered he had an autoimmune disorder at a semiannual dental exam. Without frequent visits to the dentist, she says his health would have been compromised.

Rutherford adds regular dental exams can also detect oral cancers which are on the rise in the United States.

"We're trying to identify patients at risk for potential complications later on," she says.

Whether it's once or twice a year, both Rutherford and Hujoel agree that cleanings at the dentist can take care of bacteria that regular brushing and flossing does not address.