Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects approximately 6,000 newborns each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with this condition can have a variety of physical and intellectual challenges, some of which impact their dental health.
Since October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, why not take the opportunity to educate your employees on how to prevent oral health problems in their child or loved one with Down syndrome?
Learning and Health Challenges
While children with Down syndrome have mild to moderate developmental delays, with early interventions (such as physical, speech and developmental therapies) most children are able to attend regular or special education classes in their neighborhood schools and find employment after graduation.
Unfortunately, some health complications are common. The National Association for Down Syndrome says 40 percent of children have congenital heart defects—either requiring surgery or close monitoring. Other difficulties include respiratory problems, as well as vision, hearing, thyroid and other medical disorders. However, most people lead healthy lives into their 60s and 70s.
Dental care is an important component of overall health for everyone, but people with Down syndrome have some differences in their teeth and oral cavity that can present obstacles in maintaining good oral health.
One of the first noticeable dental complications is delayed eruption. Teeth of children with Down syndrome usually erupt later than usual, and often in a different order. Whereas most children have all of their baby teeth by age 2 to 3, a Down syndrome child may be 4 or 5 years old before all of their baby teeth erupt. And their first molars may not appear until age 8 or 9, rather than the standard 6 years of age.
These children also have smaller teeth with shorter roots, and some teeth may be missing. Their tongues may be larger than average, while their upper jaw is smaller, making the tongue too large for their mouth. A small jaw can lead to bite problems, as well as crowded and impacted teeth. It can also create a situation where the top teeth do not meet the bottom teeth properly, impeding the child’s ability to speak.
Cavities and Gum Disease
Surprisingly, younger children with Down syndrome often have fewer cavities. This is likely due to the delay in tooth eruption and the fact that smaller teeth with more space between them are easier to clean. And with closely supervised diets, the amounts of decay-producing foods and drinks consumed are limited. However, adults are more prone to tooth decay because they eat more carbs and sugary foods and frequently have dry mouth, limiting the self-cleansing action that keeps food and harmful bacteria off of teeth.
The most significant dental complication of Down syndrome is periodontal (gum) disease. Gum disease—which is an inflammation of the gums, bone and ligaments that support the teeth—is the result of bacterial plaque and tartar accumulating on the teeth. Without treatment, it can lead to tooth loss.
Although most people don’t have problems with gum disease until they are older adults, the impaired immune systems of those with Down syndrome puts them at risk at an earlier age. In fact, a fast, destructive form of periodontal disease has caused many children to lose their permanent front teeth in their early teens. Poor oral hygiene, grinding and bite problems, as well as abnormal tooth shapes and roots all contribute to the early onset and rapid progression of this disease.
Preventing Oral Health Problems
While all children need assistance brushing and flossing their teeth, those with Down syndrome typically need extra help to ensure their teeth are flossed and brushed twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. A power toothbrush and floss holder can make the job easier. Antimicrobial mouthwashes help reduce harmful bacteria in the mouth, and if dry mouth is a problem, using artificial-saliva products and sipping water will keep the mouth moist.
Additionally, consumption of sweets and sugary drinks should be limited, and both children and adults with Down syndrome need to see their dentist regularly. In many cases, dentists recommend checkups more than twice a year.
Understanding Down syndrome and its oral health implications is important throughout the year, but Down Syndrome Awareness Month is a chance for all of your employees to celebrate the abilities and accomplishments of those with Down syndrome. Participating in a local Buddy Walk® is a great way to show your support and encouragement.