Dentists are seeing evidence of a national epidemic in the mouths of their young patients. Studies show that the percentage of patients 16 to 24 years old who have at least parts of teeth without any enamel coating exploded from 9% to 23% in the past 20 years. This is an incredible fact given that dental health is better than ever before thanks to increased access to routine dental treatment and improved daily brushing habits. While some enamel loss is due to increased consumption of acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, experts worry that an increase in the prevalence of eating disorders is driving the loss of the protective coating for some patients.

Erosion of enamel may be the last thing on a young person’s mind, but the impact of enamel loss on dental health is significant. As acids wash away the protective enamel shield, teeth become discolored, disfigured, and even wear away entirely. Prevention is the easiest way to avoid the complications of enamel loss and as more research shows that enamel loss is an early symptom of common eating disorders, dentists are promoting treatment as a way to promote dental health and save a patient’s life. After all, in the case of eating disorders, a healthy smile is the least significant benefit to seeking out life-saving treatment.

Just how common is enamel erosion in the mouths of patients with eating disorders? Quantifying the number of people with eating disorders nationwide is inherently challenging, as many eating disorders are undiagnosed and untreated. The consequences of this silent epidemic cannot be understated. Between 10% and 20% of eating disorder patients die early due to complications from their disorders. The problem is so substantial that eating disorders kill more people than other mental illnesses, even though they are curable when treated early.

Your Dentist, the Life Saver

Dentists need to view themselves as lifesavers. They are in a unique position to spot the earliest symptoms of eating disorders. Taking a moment to speak with a patient and encourage cooperation with a general practitioner could be the first step that puts a patient in treatment and saves their lives. Dentists are realizing that when it comes to eating disorders, oral health is something that can reveal a much larger problem early enough to take effective life-saving action.

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