by Christopher Piehler

Christopher Piehler

During my most recent visit to my orthodontist (retention is going splendidly, thanks), I asked him how business was. By his estimate, the dental and orthodontic business is down 15% to 20% in the past year. The next day, I posted a new poll on, and the results showed a slightly sunnier outlook. Of our orthodontic respondents, 23% have seen their income decline in the past year, while 15% reported that their books look about the same, and 62%are more profitable in 2008 than they were in 2007.

So why are some orthodontists feeling the pinch? As James Carville famously wrote, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Orthodontics, like the American economy in general, is driven by discretionary consumer spending, and when the cost of staples like food and fuel shoot up, suddenly fixing that slight anterior crowding doesn’t seem so urgent. When money’s tight, there’s less reason to smile anyway, right?

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Orthodontists I have talked to are making various offers to drum up business, from free whitening with treatment to cash incentives to patients who refer their friends. These measures help decrease the losses, but they’re not game-changers, so some orthodontists will just have to hold on tight until the economy starts growing again.

Speaking of growth, a researcher at the NYU College of Dentistry has recently discovered a tantalizing link between an organism’s rate of tooth growth and its life span. While studying incremental growth lines in tooth enamel, Timothy Bromage, PhD, an adjunct professor at NYU, saw a related pattern in skeletal bone tissue. Announcing his findings at the 37th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Dental Research, Bromage said, “The same biological rhythm that controls incremental tooth and bone growth also affects bone and body size and many metabolic processes, including heart and respiration rates. In fact, the rhythm affects an organism’s overall pace of life, and its life span.”

Certainly there is more research to be done here, but the initial lesson is encouraging: in biology as in the economy, slow growth is the most sustainable strategy.

Christopher Piehler