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The dirty secret behind the winner’s grin

- Featured Image

The next time you see an elite athlete beaming from the top of a podium, try to get a close look at their teeth.

Chances are, their mouth will be in a lot worse shape than their abs.

A high-level investigation has found that top athletes suffer from disturbingly high rates of tooth decay and gum disease, to the extent that it has hampered their sporting performance.

A review of 39 published studies on the oral health of elite or professional athletes has found that three-quarters have tooth decay, up to 15 per cent experience moderate to severe gum disease and up to 85 per cent suffer enamel erosion.

The findings complement the results of a survey of competitors at the 2012 London Olympics where 18 per cent reported that at some point in the past their athletic performance had been affected by problems with their teeth.

Co-leader of the research, University College, London Professor Ian Needham, said dental problems could hamper sporting achievement by causing pain and inflammation, disturbing sleep, affecting eating and undermining confidence.

While the could be many causes of such poor oral health, Professor Needham and his co-authors said sports drinks, high-carb diets and intense training regimens were at least partly to blame.

Sugary and highly acidic energy drinks are notoriously bad for teeth, while high-carbohydrate diets can boost decay-causing bacteria. These problems are compounded by the fact that athletes often operate at the edge of dehydration, limiting the production of tooth-protecting saliva.

“We do not want to demonise energy drinks, and are not saying that athletes shouldn’t use them,” he told Agence France Presse. “However, people should be aware of the risks to oral health, and can take simple measures to mitigate these.”

The researchers said athletes who consume a lot of energy drinks should brush regularly, preferably with a high-fluoride toothpaste, and spit rather than rinse after teeth cleaning.

“Oral health could be an easy win for athletes, as the oral conditions that can affect performance are all easily preventable,” Professor Needham said. “Simple strategies to prevent oral problems can offer marginal performance gains that require little or no additional time or money.”

The study has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Adrian Rollins