Socioeconomic inequalities in oral health in childhood and adulthood in a birth cohort


W.M. Thomson, Dept of Oral Sciences, School of Dentistry, The University of Otago, PO Box 647, Dunedin, New Zealand


Abstract –  Objectives:  To determine whether adult oral health is predicted by (a) childhood socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage (controlling for childhood oral health), or (b) oral health in childhood (controlling for childhood socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage), and whether oral health in adulthood is affected by changes in socioeconomic status (SES).

Methods:  Participants in a longstanding cohort study underwent systematic dental examination for dental caries and tooth loss at ages 5 and 26 years. The examination at age 26 years included the collection of data on periodontal attachment loss and plaque level. Childhood SES was determined using parental occupation, and adult SES was determined from each study member's occupation at age 26 years. Regression models were used to test the study hypotheses.

Results:  Complete data were available for 789 individuals (47.4% female). After controlling for childhood oral health, those who were of low SES at age 5 years had substantially greater mean DFS and DS scores by age 26 years, were more likely to have lost a tooth in adulthood because of caries, and had greater prevalence and extent of periodontitis. A largely similar pattern was observed (after controlling for childhood SES) among those with greater caries experience at age 5 years. For almost all oral health indicators examined, a clear gradient was observed of greater disease at age 26 years across socioeconomic trajectory groups, in the following order of ascending disease severity and prevalence: ‘high–high’, ‘low–high’ (upwardly mobile), ‘high–low’ (downwardly mobile) and ‘low–low’.

Conclusion:  Adult oral health is predicted by not only childhood socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage, but also by oral health in childhood. Changes in socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage are associated with differing levels of oral health in adulthood. The life-course approach appears to be a useful paradigm for understanding oral health disparities.