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Dental visits have remained stable over the past 20 years, despite some age and sociodemographic differences

Slightly more than 40 percent of the U.S. population visited the dentist at least once during 1977, 1987, and 1996. Despite the stability of dental visits over the past 20 years, there were distinct age and sociodemographic differences, according to a study by Richard J. Manski, D.D.S., M.B.A., Ph.D., and John F. Moeller, Ph.D., of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and William R. Maas, D.D.S., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For example, children between 6 and 18 years of age had higher dental use rates than any other age group for each of the 3 years studied. Elderly people and children under age 6 were more likely to increase their dental use. For example, 41 percent of seniors and 21 percent of young children had at least one visit in 1996 compared with slightly less than 30 percent of seniors and less than 14 percent of young children in 1977.

As expected, poorer and less-educated individuals were less likely to have seen a dentist than people with more income or more education during each of these periods. However, the gap in use rates between lower and higher income people widened during the 20-year period. Also, women and employed people were more likely to have seen a dentist than were men or unemployed people during 1977, 1987, and 1996. Minorities were less likely than whites to have visited a dentist during each of the time periods studied, but the use rate gap narrowed by 1996.

The increased use of dental services by the elderly may reflect increased retention of natural teeth among seniors during the past 20 years. Greater dental use by children younger than age 6 may reflect an increased recognition of the importance of primary teeth, decreased tolerance of untreated decay, and/or more dentists who are willing to treat young children. These findings are based on an analysis of data on the civilian, community-based U.S. population during 1977, 1987, and 1996 from the National Medical Care Expenditure Survey (NMCES), National Medical Expenditure Survey (NMES), and Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS).

See "Dental services: Analysis of utilization over 20 years," by Drs. Manski, Moeller, and Maas, in the May 2001 Journal of the American Dental Association 132, pp. 655-664.

Reprints (AHRQ Publication No. 01-R068) are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

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